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time and a longer distance in which to bring the machine to the gliding
angle. Also if you are flying over a city when trouble threatens, you
have a chance to find a good landing place.

All of these things Bill had had lectured to him endlessly at Sill, and
from both Ernest and Tom at school. But actual experience he had not
had. That fact, however, he put resolutely behind him. Just one breath
of fear struck him. He had witnessed a tail dive once at Sill, and over
and over his mind kept repeating, "Keep the tail a little higher than
the head and you won't spin." Ernest smiled to himself as he saw from
Bill's manoeuvers as the flight went on that he had stored away all
the counsel he had listened to. Many a trained aviator never learned to
drive his engine and balance his plane with the cool cleverness and
judgment of this young and untried aeronaut. Ernest commenced to relax
and enjoy himself. If they had no engine accident, there was no reason
to suppose that Bill would wreck the plane.

"Up!" cried Ernest, pointing with his well hand.

Bill responded and the plane again soared aloft.

Here the wind screamed a gale. The plane shot forward, the wires
whistling, the engine drumming, the whole light fabric in which they
rode quivering. Bill's hand on the wheel grew tense; his faculties
seemed on a wire edge. Ernest's guiding hand pointed to the right. Bill
was surprised. He had kept good track of his direction by the aid of the
air compass and felt sure he was going in the right direction.
Nevertheless he turned and, banking his wings and lifting the ailerons,
moved smoothly in the direction suggested. Half an hour later Ernest
again motioned, this time for a turn to the left.

It was not until days after their arrival at Sill that Ernest thought to
tell Bill that the unexpected and seemingly unnecessary deviations from
the straight course were merely to try him out. An hour or so later when
Ernest saw that they were passing over a strip of country where good
landing places seemed plentiful, he indicated a dip and Bill executed it
perfectly. He felt proud of himself now, and said, "Tail up, tail up!"
repeatedly, as he felt the plane drop earthward. Reaching a lower level,
Ernest nodded and they sailed on a straight-away flight, their eyes
turned ever to the far-away goal in the west.

Bill was unconscious of the passing time. They had had a heavy and
sustaining breakfast, and luncheon was forgotten. There was no time to
stop if they had been hungry. But Ernest was thinking of many things.

He carefully scanned the country they were passing over for a landing
place. Bill's face was well covered with the flaps of his helmet and the
wings of his goggles, but Ernest fancied that the young aviator was
pale. He felt that they must land for awhile. Even now they were many
hours ahead of the time they would have made on a railroad train. He
indicated an upward course, and Bill rose as they raced over a flat and
open part of the country. Far ahead there lay what seemed to be an open
plain dotted at long intervals with small villages. A pleasant farming
district evidently, far from any large city. Ernest was sure that he
could get gasoline in any hamlet, and there seemed to be plenty of
landing places. The only question remaining was Bill's ability to get
down without a smash. Ernest smiled. He was fatalist enough to be
willing to risk what _had_ to be risked.

The sun was well in the west. They seemed to be flying straight into the
blazing disk when Ernest, pointing to a wide plain far ahead, touched
Bill and told him with a gesture to go down and land.

Bill gave a short nod and prepared to obey. There flashed into his head
a saying of Tom's, "Anybuddy can fly, but it's the landing that hurts."

Bill felt everything - their safety, his own self-respect and Ernest's
confidence in him - rested on this last and different test. He could not
conceive of a reason for landing, but Ernest said land, so land it was!

At any rate, his engine was going perfectly, so he was not required to
attempt a difficult volplane with a dead engine. It was something to be
spared that. Bill picked the likeliest spot in the distant landscape,
all immense field with only a few groups of black dots to break its late
fall greenness. Bill could not tell the nature of the dots at the
height he was flying. They might be bushes or cows. Bill hoped for the
latter, and as he came down he saw that he was right. Cows would be
likely to scatter, thought Bill, but bushes would be difficult to steer
around.

About a hundred feet from the ground he tilted his elevating plane, and
the machine, nosing up, glided off at a tangent. Once more making a
turn, he came down to the ground, striking it gently, and bobbing along
the grassy surface of the field.

The cows scattered all right. When the machine came to a standstill,
swaying back and forth like a giant dragonfly, all that remained of the
herd was a glimpse of agitated and wildly waving tails galloping off
into the second growth which rimmed the pasture.

Ernest, who had taken many long flights, removed his goggles and smiled
at the young pilot as he climbed awkwardly over the side and dropped to
the ground. His head whirled, and his eyes felt strained out of his
head. With fingers that trembled he undid his helmet and pushed off his
goggles.

"Well, boy, I may say that I was never so proud of a friend in my life!
You have done nobly!"

"What did we land for?" asked Bill. "I don't see as we can afford the
time."

"We must take time to get some gas and rest you up a little. Don't you
worry, son! You are going to drive all night to-night unless - well, why
didn't I think of this before? We are 'way past the path of the storm
last night, and - "

"Last night!" interrupted Bill. "Was it only last night? I feel as
though it was a week ago."

"I was going to say," resumed Ernest, "that we can send a telegram from
somewhere around here, and then we can spend the night at a farmhouse,
and go on to-morrow. We can reach there to-morrow night, perhaps
earlier."

"I don't approve of that," said Bill. "If my mother thought I was 'up in
a balloon, boys,' she would about die of fright."

"She gave you permission," reminded Ernest.

"Yes, but of course she never thought anything like this would happen
and honestly I wish you wouldn't! I can drive all night all right. That
is, if I can get a little rest," he added, as he sensed his aching
muscles and realized the tension he had been under.

"I think about so," said Ernest. "I will look around for a farmhouse.
Must be one near on account of all these cows. Oh, goodness! See what's
coming!"

Across the field surged a small but excited procession. A lean boy on
horseback, without saddle or bridle and guiding the shambling colt he
rode by a halter strap, led the van. Behind him, as lean as he, and
about seven feet tall, a farmer, whiskered like a cartoon, kept pace
easily with the horse. Behind came a roly-poly old lady, her apron
strings fluttering in the breeze as she bowled along dragging a fat
little girl by each hand. Three dogs barking loudly brought up the rear.

Twenty-five feet from the plane the procession was thrown into confusion
by the colt which suddenly discovered what seemed to him to be a giant
horsefly, its wings wagging lazily. He had dreamed of just such monsters
while snoozing in the shade on hot summer days, but here, oh, here was
the creature itself ready to fly up and alight on him!

He did not wait for further investigation, but whirled and left for
parts distant where the cows peered through the saplings at the awful
intruder in their peaceful pasture. The sod was soft and the young
rider, rolling head over heels, was not harmed as he came to a stop
close to the boys and sat up, rubbing his red head.

"What's your hurry?" asked Ernest, smiling.

"Nuthin'," said the boy. "Say, is that a airyplane?"

"Sure thing!" replied Ernest. "Do you live near here?"

"Yep!" said the boy. "Let's see you fly in it."

Ernest laughed. "You certainly believe in speeding the parting guest,
don't you, young chap? Is this your father coming?"

"Yep! Say, how do you work her?"

Ernest turned to greet the tall farmer. Everything was turning out as
he hoped. Not only would the farmer and his roly-poly wife, who
presently came up panting, give them supper and a place to rest, but he
had a Ford, and on account of the distance from town was always supplied
with a large tank full of gas. Ernest gave a sigh of relief. The only
danger was from their curiosity. When the thin boy went off to get the
colt, and was seen riding furiously away, Ernest knew that, like Paul
Revere, he was off to give an alarm and rouse the countryside. He looked
at his watch. There should be a full moon later, but Bill was completely
tired out and had not yet come into the condition known as second wind.
It would take three or four hours to get ready for the rest of the
flight.

"What sort of a chap is that boy of yours?" asked Ernest.

"Pig-headed!" said the old lady, speaking for the first time.

"That is not a bad trait," said Ernest, smiling. "I mean can you trust
him?"

"Yes, you _kin_," said his mother. "Webby will do just what he says
every time and all the time."

"The woman's right," said the farmer. "I kin trust Web soon as I kin
myself."

"Sooner!" said his wife scornfully. "You are the forgittinest feller,
and Webby don't _never_ forget. If you want he should go an errant,
mister, he'll be back soon."

"Not exactly an errand," said Ernest, and no more would he say until he
saw the boy come galloping back to the field. He dismounted a long way
off, and came running.

"Your mother and father tell me you can keep your word, and be trusted,"
said Ernest. "I want you to stand guard over this machine. I don't want
you or anyone else to _touch_ it. I want you to keep everyone at least
ten feet away. If you will do this, I will either pay you or else take
you up for a little flight."

"Wait!" said the boy. He turned and went running back to his colt and,
mounting, dashed out of sight. In five minutes he returned bearing a
long out-of-date rifle.

"Go ahead and get something to eat," he said. "This ought to fix 'em!"

With a stick he drew a deep scratch in the green grass around the plane.
Then he looked with a smile across the field.

"Let 'em come!" he said. "This ought to fix 'em!"

Ernest looked. Mr. Paul Revere Webby had not ridden in vain. They were
coming. Coming in Fords, buggies and on horseback. Coming strong.




CHAPTER XIV


Ernest turned to the boy with the rifle who was standing guard over the
wonderful, strange thing that had alighted in his father's meadow, and
was satisfied. Cool, clear, honest blue eyes stared back and met his
gaze fairly.

"Don't you be feared," said the boy. "They won't come apast that
scratch. You kin trust me. Ma and Pa trusts me with the roan colt."

"The one you were riding?" asked Ernest.

"Naw, not that," the boy laughed. "You git on, less'n you want to answer
four million questions. You kin leave her with me. They won't come apast
that scratch, and I kin skeer 'em off with this. They know I kin shoot."

He patted the long, lean rifle lying along his arm, and Ernest knew that
in truth he could not leave the airplane in safer hands.

He followed Bill and the farmer's family across the slope, Frank
lounging along beside him. They did not talk. Frank staggered as he
walked, he was so tired, and Ernest, who was accustomed to long flights,
was silent too. The pain in his arm was about all he could bear, and he
did not feel in the mood for talking to the fellow who had injured him.
So they moved silently across the soft sod, the farmer and his wife
talking busily to Bill. The two children and the three dogs ran and
frolicked in the rear. From the distant second growth the herd gazed
out, still suspicious. They had almost forgotten to chew their cuds!

The roly-poly farmer's wife gave them a feast. Home-cured ham and
home-laid eggs and corn pone and jam and jelly and cake and molasses and
all sorts of good things besides, including cream to drink - real cream,
all blobby on the sides of the glass. Bill thought he would never get
enough to eat, and even Frank consumed about enough for two boys. As
soon as the meal was over, Ernest made Bill go and lie down on Webby's
bed. Frank was given the narrow horsehair sofa in the stuffy parlor, but
Ernest knew that Bill must sleep in an airy room, and the parlor had not
been opened since the war of '60 to judge by the musty closeness of it.
Ernest himself was in too much pain to rest so he sat and talked
aviation with the farmer for a few minutes and then they went down to
the lot to take a look at the machine. The farmer's wife had stacked her
dishes and was there before them.

Not even his mother was allowed inside the scratch by the important and
faithful Webby. He stood guard beside the machine, enjoying the proudest
moment of his life. In after years, when Webby, goaded on by that
fateful landing, had gained the highest rung of fame's ladder, his
triumph was little compared to that clear sunset time in the pasture
when he stood guard over the wonder-car that had come from the sky with
its pilot and passengers scarcely older than himself.

When Ernest approached, the crowd surged forward, but Webby sternly
drove them back.

There were growls from the outsiders, who yearned to step over the
danger line and look and handle and if possible go off with a bit of
wire or string or what not, as a keepsake. But Webby was adamant,
although he was obliged to make dates for the following day with three
boys who insisted on fighting him out of revenge.

One glance at the plane assured Ernest that everything was exactly as he
had left it. He thanked Webby and asked him what he would like best - a
payment of money or a flight.

"Druther fly," said Webby promptly, laying down his rifle and starting
toward the car.

"I can't fly it myself now," said Ernest, "but when the other boy comes
down from the house he will give you a little turn. If we had time, we
could stay here for a day or so. This is the finest field for landing
that I have seen in a long time. But we are in a great hurry, and all we
can do for you to-night is to give you a short spin."

When Bill came down, his eyes heavy with sleep, he found Webby
restlessly pacing up and down before the car, and a silent, attentive
crowd of natives waiting to see what was going to happen. Webby's
parents did not know enough about aviation to feel any fear for their
son, and watched with unspeakable delight as Ernest with his one arm and
Bill with his two sound ones, pulled the plane around to face the wind,
settled Webby in his seat and started the engine.

"Don't go more than fifty feet above the ground, and keep over the field
if you can," whispered Ernest in Bill's ear.

"Aren't you going up?" asked Bill.

"No use; you can manage it all right," said Ernest, "and I will stay
here and keep an eye on Frank. He needs watching. He would lose himself
in the swamp for a cent. He is in a bad state of mind. I hope he is,
too. Perhaps he will come to realize what he has done."

"I hope so," said Bill. "Can't we leave as soon as I give that kid a
turn? I want to get along. It seems as though we were hanging around
here an awful while."

"Land over by the bars if you can," said Ernest. "It will be fun to see
this outfit scamper over, and besides it will be closer to the gasoline
tank."

"All right," replied Bill, tuning up the engine. He skimmed along the
field while a wild, shrill shout went up from the observers. They
commenced to trail excitedly after, and stood hopping up and down and
tossing their hats in excitement as the graceful car left the ground and
sailed smoothly into the air. Bill found that flying, rising and
lighting the second time was much easier than the first. He had lost
what little awkwardness he had had in the beginning, and the machine
moved with a smooth freedom. He wished that he had eyes in the back of
his head so he could see Webby. But if he _had_ seen Webby, he would not
have laughed. Webby, watching the old familiar earth drop away, felt
exalted; he felt as though he had suddenly become a creature of some
finer, rarer place. When Webby told about it next day, he said, "I felt
like I was a chicken just hatched fum out an aig," but Webby said that
because words were hard things and difficult to handle. He really
thought of angels and made up his mind then and there to be a great man.

Bill made the landing on the other side of the field as Ernest had
suggested, and he and Webby sat in the car and laughed as the audience
streaked across to them. Webby shook just a little when he stood once
more on solid earth, and he was more silent than ever. But when Ernest
came up he said in a low tone: "Say, ain't there books about this here?"

"What you want is a magazine," said Ernest, "and I will send you mine as
soon as I have read it."

"Every time it comes?" asked Webby. "Say, you are good!"

"That's all right," said Ernest, "only take one piece of advice. The
flying will keep. Just you _keep on going to school_. You will need all
sorts of learning, especially mathematics."

"Ho; I kin _eat_ figgers!" boasted the boy.

"That's good," said Ernest, shaking his hand. "Now, good-bye. I have
left my address with your mother. If you will write me next week, I will
send you that magazine."

They said good-bye to the kindly farmers, having filled up with gas,
settled Frank in his seat, and arose just as a great white moon showed
itself over the trees.

Once more they were off. With good luck they would reach their
destination early the following day. Bill was tired, deadly tired; but
he thought of the pain Ernest must be suffering from his wounded arm and
settled himself to his task with dogged determination. He had never been
up after dark, and the sensation was a new one. He was glad to have
Ernest beside him. As they rose, a couple of enormous birds sailed out
of their way. Eagles or buzzards; he did not know enough of the country
to be able to tell which. He was conscious of a feeling of dizziness and
fatigue. Everything he had ever heard about side slipping, tail spins,
nose dives - in fact, all the accidents that might befall an aviator
passed through his mind in gruesome procession. He looked down at the
compass, now beginning to show its luminous dial, and saw that they were
really going in the right direction. As he looked down, he commenced to
feel a stranger to the many levers and knobs before him. He knew them
all, knew them like a book; at least he had. Now they were slipping,
slipping away from him. He could not remember what they were for.

He felt rather than saw Ernest motion him upward. As he climbed through
the cutting air, he plunged into a dense bank of cloud. The thought
flashed over him that if the plane turned over there in unlighted space,
he would not be able to right it again. As they passed once more into
the clear air, it was as though they were plunged into a bath of liquid
silver. The moon, immense and coldly luminous, had risen and hung in the
sky huge and pale. If the morning sun had turned every wire and blade to
gold, the moon silvered the whole plane. Space about them stretched off
dim and threatening. Bill shivered. His clutch on the wheel loosened and
the engine coughed twice.

Bill felt his nerve die within him. Then a voice clear and sweet seemed
to speak. It was so clear that he glanced toward Ernest to see if he too
heard. Twice he heard his name called, then the dearest voice in the
world said clearly:

"All's well, sonny. We are waiting. You will be in time."

With a start Bill knew that his mother was speaking. Where she was he
did not know, but he heard her. All his fear, his indecision and his
nervousness faded away. He glanced at the dial of the clock. It was
just nine. The long, hard night was ahead of him, but he could make it.
He set the wheel and risked a look at Ernest. He had not spoken, and he
had not heard. With his well arm he was nursing the broken one, and as
Bill looked at him he once more motioned upward. So they went soaring
up, up and still up, into silver-shod space, above ink-black masses of
cloud that held the silver rays of the moon on their upper surfaces as
though they were cups.

As they sped on a wind began to blow behind them. It raced with them,
caught them, hurled them forward with incredible speed. Bill held his
course steadily, remembering "tail up!" as he tore onward. They were now
so high that the earth was not even a shadow below them.

Suddenly as though flung through a doorway, they fell into one of those
strange freaks of the upper air called a "pocket." It is a vacuum, and
most dangerous.

The plane shook and wavered, but Bill set himself for a downward course
and glided across the perilous area. As they emerged and struck the wind
again, the plane slipped dangerously, but Bill warped the planes and set
the ailerons with all the speed he could, and presently the indicator
before him registered an even keel and the danger past.

Silently Ernest reached over and patted Bill's shoulder. Bill scarcely
noticed. He was no longer afraid, no longer nervous. He had come into
his own - and his mother was waiting for him! He would not fail her. She
expected him. He would be there. How or why she knew that he was coming
he could not guess, but he had heard her voice. Bill settled back in his
seat and felt that he was master of his machine. And, better still, he
was master of himself. Never again would he lose control of his nerves.
He wondered how he had ever done so. In the darkness he smiled.

Hour after hour sped by. Bill was experiencing one of the peculiar
things about air voyages. Time seemed to be obliterated and he did not
feel the slightest fatigue. All the usual sensations of the human body
seemed to disappear just as the earth had disappeared. On and on flew
the plane. Once more he glanced at Ernest. It seemed as though he had
slipped down in his seat. Bill wondered if he was tired. Darkness crept
over the intense moonlight like a veil, and Bill realized that the moon
was gone. He kept his course, however, with the aid of his indicator and
the air compass and at last a new light commenced to show, the cold,
cheerless, dun light of early dawn. As yet there was no sign of the sun.

Bill wondered if, in the night, he had flown past Fort Sill. It was
certainly time they were approaching it. He slowed the engine down as
much as he dared, and waited for more light. As day came, he saw that
he was indeed over the bleak, cheerless wastes of Oklahoma, but as yet
there was no sign of the great Post.

At last, far, far ahead he saw it; a great city, part of it forsaken and
dismantled now that the war was ended and the need of trained troops not
so important. He dropped a little as he recognized his location. He
scanned Old Post lying on its low eminence, with the white hospitals
spreading over their area, New Post with its wide parade ground and its
trim rows of officers' quarters staring primly at the departmental
buildings built in the old Mexican fashion on the other side of the
parade.

Donovan, with its splendid roads and miles of skeleton tent frames, and
nearer Bill recognized with a quickly beating heart the squat, ugly
quarters and class buildings of the School of Fire.

Now on the instant there came to Bill a daring idea. Back of the
quarters where his mother and dad lived, a wide level space stretched
out to a bluff under which ran a sluggish stream called Medicine Creek.
It was a good-sized field, but of course not nearly the size of Aviation
Field lying far the other side of the Post. Nevertheless Bill made up
his mind to land there. He circled the Post, rising as he did so to a
high altitude, and leaving the plain he wished to land on far behind.

He knew that he must be careful, as too great speed in striking would
drive the plane forward into the Students' building lying broadside.

If he approached from the other direction, a false landing would send
them over the cliff into the trees and underbrush along the creek bank.

But he knew that he could do it, and he did. The plane came down at a
perfect angle, reached the earth just at the edge of the bluff, hopped
gayly along toward the class building, turned in response to his hand on
the wheel, and stopped almost opposite his mother's back door.

Bill turned and looked at Ernest. He was lying low in his seat in an


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Online LibraryFrank CobbBattling the Clouds → online text (page 8 of 9)