Thursday, August 18, 2005
A short story of romance my dad wrote, found among his writings
Love Flies West
by J. R. Johnston
No one on the big airliner seemed to notice the tall young man who boarded the plane at all, least of all, Judith Mason. Not that the daughter of old Jacob Mason, owner of the line, was immune to romantic ideas about attractive young males. She was too engrossed in staring absently out the window to notice.
Even after the ship had taken off and had left the Municipal Airport far behind she did not turn to see who was in the seat behind her, although she must have been vaguely aware someone was there. Absently she had noticed the fat salesman who kept ogling her from across the aisle, the two spinster sisters who quite evidently were not enjoying their first plane trip, and the grey-haired father and his 19 or 20-year-old son just ahead of her, but she had had no occasion to turn and survey the rest of the plane's interior.
It was not until the co-pilot, slender, boyish Jimmy Bell, stuck his head out of the cabin that she saw him.
“We’re running into a bit of a storm, folks,” Pilot Bell announced with a reassuring grin. “Probably just a little wind and snow. Nothing to worry about, but see that your safety belts are tight.”
The two spinster sisters let out little mouse-like squeals of alarm as the pilot went back into the cabin. Being somewhat comparatively new to this service, Jimmy was not as cock-sure as most pilots are, and his manner did not tend to instill supreme confidence in first-flight passengers, especially timid ladies.
“Snow!“ cried one of them. “Gracious! How will they be able to see? It's getting too dark, too. Why, we’ll all be killed!”
"Nuts!“ said a voice behind the trim, auburn head of Judith Mason. The word was inelegant, Judith decided, but highly expressive. “Didn’t they ever hear of radio beams, blind flying and all that?”
Judith slowly turned her head and surveyed the young man coldly. There was something vaguely familiar about him, about the way he was smiling at her, but her feeling was one of disdain. Why should he speak to her of radio beams? Was she not “Bull" Mason's daughter, and therefore possessed of a higher-than-average knowledge of the airways?
“Possibly they are also aware that radio beams sometimes go haywire and swing off,“ she answered, a tinge of ice in her voice.
He pretended to shiver. "My, what cold eyes you have, grandma!"
She turned her back on him haughtily, picking up a magazine from the seat beside her. As she did so, the plane lurched suddenly, seemed to flutter like an unsteady leaf, and then was on even keel again. A small air pocket,, she decided, looking out of the window.
Darkness had fallen, and all she could see was a very faint radiance from the port wing lights. All else was blotted out by thick flakes of the swirling snow which beat against the window. She wondered if the storm would delay them; pictured her father scanning weather reports at Salt Lake City and grumpily ordering everybody about while he waited for her.
She was conscious of a wave of affection sweeping over her. Dear old dad. He had worked hard to build Pacific Air Express, first as a pilot flying a lone ship, then as manager of a fleet of planes plying between Salt Lake and Los Angeles, and finally as the line grew in popularity and prosperity, president of a company whose great airliners raced the sun from Chicago to the coast. The proud boast of PAE had always been the safety of its ships, the carefulness of its pilots.
The door of the cabin opened again. Jimmy Bell came out and motioned to Nan Grey, the pretty stewardess. She went forward hurriedly. In the momentary glance that she had of Bell’s face, Judith thought she caught a strained, unnatural expression. Something was worrying him. Maybe it was his first blizzard, or Tom Evans, the pilot, was having a little difficulty climbing over the range.
And then it happened.
One moment the big plane was whirring smoothly through space, except for the buffeting of the wind. The next, something seemed to reach up and grab at the landing gear. There was a horrible crunching and scraping underneath.
“Trees!” cried the young man behind Judith.
That one instant always would stand out vividly in her mind, like a terrible nightmare. She saw a great welt appear in the floor, as if some giant hand had struck it from below with a mighty hammer.
The ship yawed crazily. The screaming, frightened spinsters tumbled into a disheveled heap in the aisle, revealing that they had unfastened their safety belts in unreasoning fear. The grey-haired businessman pulled his son down upon the seat, shielding him with his own big body.
She saw no more. From behind her an arm came across her breast, pinning her to the back of the seat with muscles like corded iron.
“Steady!” bade the voice of the young man behind her. "Hold ti---"
The world upheaved unexpectedly. Judith was aware of a terrific shock, of grinding steel and splintering wood. Of ripping fabric and shattering glass. Something struck her on the side of the head, and all went black.
It was a ghastly, unreal world that Judith Mason struggled back to. Daylight had come, and the wind had died. There was a blurring in her eyes, a strange inability to focus properly. When it cleared she saw that snow was still falling in big, feathery flakes. She tried to rise, and was suddenly aware of a violent throbbing in her temples.
Her attempt at moving, however, brought a face into her line of vision, the face of the young man who would been in the seat behind her. His hat was gone, and there was a wide streak of blood across one cheek. That streak stirred a memory, took her back to her childhood, to a day when a bloody-faced boy had risen triumphantly from thrashing the neighborhood bully for pestering her.
“You!” she gasped. “I know you now. You-- you're Bob Morgan, who used to tease me in school!"
“Yes, and you're that snooty little girl who lived up the street from me,” he grinned easily. “Judy Mason.. I knew you the minute I saw you on the plane. How do you feel?”
“Rather weak, and my head is splitting. Where are the others?”
His face sobered.
“They’re -- they're dead. We're all that’s left. I've just finished covering the bodies with snow, and marking the spot. Luckily the plane didn't catch fire. They must have clicked off the switches just as she hit. Otherwise, the ship would probably have caught fire.“
Judith shuddered involuntarily at the thought of being trapped in a blazing plane. She had once watched, horror-stricken, while **attractive landing flyer burned to death when his ship, too heavily laden with gasoline, failed on the takeoff and crashed in a ditch. She shuddered again.
“Cold?” queried Morgan solicitously.
She shook her head, noticing for the first time that she was lying on a blanket under a big evergreen.
“No, just thinking how terrible it would of been for us if we have been caught in there, and burned. Where is the plane?”
“Back of you. You can see if you turn your head. It's a mess, but it could've been worse. Evans managed to keep her going straight somehow. Otherwise it would've been smashed to bits.
One short look was enough. She agreed it was a mess, all right. The big airliner lay canted on its side against a huge tree that had sheared off the left wing as though it had been paper. The other wing was gone too, but was nowhere in sight. The **wreaking fumes of gasoline filled the air, mingled with the pungent odor of balsam fir.
“I smell gasoline,” she said, sniffing. “Isn't it dangerous?”
He shook his head. “No, not now. There's nothing to set it off. Whatever has been spilled will evaporate in a few hours. There's enough of a breeze to blow the fumes away. Want to get up? Here, I'll help you.“
She tried to stand, then sank back as pain stabbed through her right ankle.
“Oh!" she cried in dismay. “I'm afraid I can't. My ankle!“
He knelt hastily in the snow and gently to **offer pop. The ankle was swollen, he saw quickly, but not that severely. He sighed with relief after he had ascertained there was no fracture.
“Just wrenched, I think,” he smiled at her. “Best thing you can do is take off your stocking and put that foot right down in the snow. Can you stand it, or are you still a little 'fraidy-cat like you used to be?”
Resentment flamed in her eyes.
. “You always called me that, didn't you? And I always hated you for it, Bob Morgan! I'll show you whether I'm afraid or not."
He showed his amusement.
“OK. You know, this will probably be the making of you--this experience, I mean. Somehow, I rather pictured you as growing up to be a hot house plant. You shouldn't be now. That is,” he added soberly, “if we ever get out of this. Wish I knew where we are. Probably a hundred miles from the nearest habitation, and maybe just as far from the air lanes."
He turned away toward the wrecked plane. Better not let her know how really serious their predicament was. After all, it was likely the first time in her sheltered life that she had been thrown upon her own resources.
The gasoline fumes were not quite so noticeable now, but they were acrid enough to cause him to cough intermittently. Beside the smashed wing, close to the body of the plane, he discovered a steady dripping, and realized that here was something they might need, slowly losing itself in the snow. He climbed into the ship in search of containers.
In the tiny pantry he found several small pans and a coffee pot. The latter he left there temporarily, but carried all but one of the pans outside and put them in the snow under the dripping gasoline. That done, he returned for the coffee pot and the other pan, got his traveling bag and one that had Judith's name on it, and plowed through the drifts to where she lay watching him, her injured ankle packed with snow.
He set the bags down near her. Then he kicked and scraped a clear spot preparatory to building a fire.
“Might as well make ourselves at home,” he said with a forced attempt at being cheerful. “Found some grub in the plane, enough to last the two of us a week or 10 days, anyhow. Hungry?”
“Practically starved,” she admitted. “How long do I have to freeze this foot?”
She winced a trifle as he ran his fingers lightly over the foot muscles.
“Sore, eh?’ he asked, looking up at her drawn face. “I think the swelling has started to go down though. But you won't be able to put much weight on it for a couple of days. Soon as we have some hot coffee I’ll get the emergency kit and bind it up for you."
“Hot coffee!” she exclaimed. “Don’t tell me you've discovered a restaurant, Mr. Morgan."
“Cafeteria style, only. You don't know how practical I can be."
From the under limbs of the nearby pines he broke off an armful of dead twigs and branches, dumped them in the middle of the cleared space, and then went to the plane. One of the pans was already full of gasoline, so he replaced it with an empty one, came back and pored a few drops upon the pile of twigs. Judith edged back on her blanket.
“You’re not going to use that to start a fire with, are you?” she asked apprehensively. “It’ll explode!”
He laughed at her. “Gasoline doesn't explode unless it is confined. Like gunpowder in a cartridge. Burns darned fast, though."
He stepped back a pace, struck a match from the box he took from his pocket, and tossed it upon the twigs. It went out. He repeated the action more quickly, before the brimstone ceased flaring. Flame puffed out instantly. The wood burned merrily as he piled on more twigs, and the heat gradually melted the snow surrounding it.
“There, I guess that will make things more homelike,” Morgan said, holding chilled fingers to the blaze. “Now for some coffee. There's only a little water left in the galley tank, so we’ll probably have to resort to snow water soon."
For the first time, she smiled at him, a little wearily to be sure, but still a smile. He thought: “How beautiful she has grown to be."
“You’re a sight,” she told him. “If you get a towel and melt some snow, I'll fix that cut on your face for you. Are you hurt anywhere else?”
He explored a bump on the back of his head with tender fingers.
“Got a knot here just as we struck. I think it hit us both at the same time, whatever it was. Our heads were pretty close together."
She nodded as he started melting snow in the pan.
"I remember now. You were holding me down in the seat. If it hadn't been for you, I'd be like ---” she motioned wordlessly toward that telltale mound close to the ship.
“It saved me too, I guess, though I think I got a cracked rib against the back of the seat. Hurts when I **breathe in deeply. All the others were thrown up front. Belts snapped."
“Tell me about it."
He shook his head. “I'd rather not. You see, Jimmy was like a brother to me. He died ... in my arms."
She stared at him incredulously.
“Bell, the co-pilot. I taught him all he knew of flying. We work together for Eastern Airlines till three months ago. Then he got this job, and wrote me that there was an opening for me. Said the old man's daughter was flying back from New York on the 10th, in one of his letters. That could only be you, so I decided to take the same plane."
“And Jimmy? He was the boyish looking one?”
“Yes. The wheel got him. Crushed his chest. The others were all smashed and tangled up against the bulkhead. Jimmy was still alive when I got out. He sort of grinned at me once, but that was all. A grand boy, Jimmy."
Judith drew the blanket closer about her, and buried her face in her hands to shut out the picture.
It stopped snowing about midmorning, and by noon the sky cleared. Weak and tired, Judith fell asleep soon after Morgan had fixed a lunch, and he took the opportunity to look around a bit. It was three o'clock when he returned. She was wide-awake. He thought he caught a look of relief in her eyes, but it was gone immediately.
“You might have told me you're going away,” she said peevishly. But I suppose it's just like a man to make others worry all the more."
He bridled at that, throwing a furry bundle angrily to the ground.
“Whoa, now! I was beginning to have hopes for you, but I can see you’re the same stuck-up little snob you always were. I've been out trying to locate some hunter or trapper to help us. To get you some fresh meat, I chased a rabbit half a mile through the snow in spite of the pain in my side --- and you snap at me like a bulldog when I get back!”
“Well,” defensively, “you could of said something about going. How did I know you hadn't deserted me? And you don't talk to me like that, Bob Morgan! Remember you’re only a hired man."
His lip curled slightly. "And you’re the boss's daughter, eh? Well, you and that bull-necked Old Man and of yours can go jump in the lake if you think I’m going to be your yes-man. Besides, I'm not working for him yet."
He turned on his heel disgustedly and started over to the plane, coming back with a pan and a small knife. She watched him covertly as he skinned the rabbit he had killed, but neither spoke until he had it up and set it over the fire to stew.
“You-- you didn't find anyone, did you?” she asked him.
He shook his head, avoiding her gaze.
“No. Not a sign of anyone. Or anything else, for that matter, except the rabbit and tracks of some big animal that had feet like a cat's. I'm afraid we're a long way from civilization, maybe hundreds of miles."
“I suppose the radio is smashed?”
"Uh-huh. I looked at it after I packed you over here. No use trying to get help that way. We’ll just have to wait until you're able to travel, or until someone happens along. If your dad hasn't forgotten all his training, he'll have half the planes in the country searching for us by this time."
But it might be days, she knew, before they were found. She recalled that an airliner that had disappeared in Utah last December had not been discovered until spring.
“I did find the other wing,” Morgan went on. “It was smashed off against a tree. Saw the first tree we hit, too."
“Up there on the hill?” she pointed to the rim of the valley to the eastward.
“Yes. Five feet higher, and we'd have cleared. Too bad."
She glanced over at the mound where lay eight still bodies, and shuddered.
“Can’t we go somewhere else? It's so near to --”
He nodded, understanding fully.
“Yes, of course. I'd been thinking the same thing. We'd be more comfortable in the plane after some of the wreckage was cleared away, but those gasoline fumes are still dangerous. There's a cave over by that black cliff. I presume we'd be better off there if another storm came up.
“Soon as we have supper, I'll pack you over there, and come back for whatever we might need. Wonder if there's a gun of some kind in the plane?”
“There may be one somewhere in the cockpit. Most of our pilots have one along. In case of emergency, you know."
"Humph. If this isn't an emergency, it'll do till one comes along."
She was silent a moment. Then: "Still angry with me? I'm sorry if I was nasty. This is a new experience for me, you know. I was really afraid of -- of being alone."
“Forget it. I guess I'm a little overwrought, too."
By the time the stew was done, it was getting dark. They ate with relish, but Judith had no word of praise for Morgan's cooking, although the food tasted better than a meal at the Ritz-Plaza.
That first night was something of a nightmare to Judith. It took several trips for Morgan to transport all the blankets, provisions and other things over the snow, but it was accomplished as darkness settled over the valley. The cave was small, and rather damp and cold, but a fire at the entrance soon made it cozy.
Twice, near midnight, Judith saw twin spots of light staring at their fire from the blackness beyond. Fright overwhelmed her as she remembered tales of wolves, and what they did to the helpless.
The second time, the fire was so low that only the embers were visible, and the glowing eyes approached quite close. She called to Morgan in a terrorized voice. He was awake and on his feet at once, demanding to know what was the matter.
“Some animal,” she quavered from the depths of her blankets. “He’s gone now, but I could see his eyes staring at me. Do you think there are wolves around here?”
He laughed, putting away the automatic he had found in the plane.
“More likely it was a coyote looking for something the eat. Don't worry. You'll be all right. I'll build up the fire again. That'll keep any animal away. Go back to sleep."
It was three days before the pain had gone from Judith's ankle and she could walk again. Meanwhile, Morgan had not wandered far from her, devoting most of his time to preparing meals and cutting wood. The galley had furnished a butcher knife and a small cleaver which were inadequate enough to make the task a tiresome one. However, the pile he was building halfway between the cave and the plane grew steadily in size, and finally stirred Judith's curiosity.
“What are you gathering so much wood for?” she queried from her seat on a boulder nearby. “Are you planning on being here all winter?”
He heaved part of a rotted log upon the pile and shook his head.
“No. It's for a signal smoker. I'll put some green wood on top of it, and send up a column of smoke that will be seen for miles. There's a chance that somebody'll see it and---”
“Listen!” she interrupted breathlessly. “Listen!”
A faint, far away humming came to his ears.
“A plane!" she cried excitedly, pointing toward a bank of clouds on the northern horizon. “Oh -- Bob, it's a plane! Do something!”
A tiny black speck crawled flylike across the face of the clouds, heading steadily eastward. From its actions, Morgan realized it was not a searching plane.
“It’s going away from us,” he said grimly. “Not looking around, either. Must be one of the regular liners. But if we can get this fire going, maybe we can attract its attention.
“Judy -- there's a pan of gasoline in the cave. Get it while I break off some green boughs, will you?”
“Of course. Oh--hurry, hurry, Bob!”
“I will. Be careful of that ankle,” he called after her.
He ran to the nearest tree, hacking at the lower branches with the butcher knife. As fast as he could break off a bough, it landed on the pile of wood.
“Bob! Bob! Help!”
A wild scream. Dropping the branch in his hands Morgan raced frantically for the cave.
Another scream, accompanied by a fierce snarl, spurred him on. He shifted the butcher knife to his left hand as he reached the cave entrance, pulled the automatic from his pocket with the other and snapped off the safety.
Judith, her brown curls a tangled mass, was down on the floor of the cave. Astride her, trying to reach her slim throat with yellowed, dripping fangs, was a panther.
Morgan fired hastily over the animal's head, trying to distract it. The panther raised his slavering jaws, snarling fiercely. The long tail lashed angrily. Then, suddenly, it sprang.
Morgan fired again, just as a ripping claw knocked the weapon spinning from his hand. The big cat sank its teeth in his shoulder, falling on top of to him.
Sharp claws dug into his stomach, tearing, slashing through his clothes. Desperately he stabbed again and again at the panther’s side with the butcher knife. The beast snarled and broke away from them, jerking the knife out of his hand. He scrambled up hurriedly as the animal pulled the dripping blade from its side with its teeth and launched a fresh attack.
A gun roared beside Morgan. The panther collapsed in midair, fell to the ground. It kicked convulsively once or twice, its hate-filled eyes watching Morgan, and then lay still.
Judith dropped the still smoking automatic and threw herself into Morgan's arms, weeping copiously.
“Oh, Bob, I was so scared!” she sobbed. “He was in the back of the cave, eating our food. Before I knew it, he'd knocked me down. Oh, if you hadn't come!"
She trembled violently, pressing against him. He forgot the biting pain in his fang-torn shoulder, the dull throbbing of his cracked rib, in the sheer thrill of holding her close. He knew now that he had wanted to do that for a long time.
“There, there,” he said with the gentleness that surprised even himself. “It’s all over. You saved my life too, you know, shooting him when you did. How’d you manage to get the gun so quickly?”
“It fell right beside me. I-I guess I didn't think much. I just picked it up and fired.“
“Are you hurt?”
She drew away from him, still trembling, and took inventory. “A few scratches, I guess. He was chewing on my coat, mostly. But you, Bob! Your shoulder is all red."
He glanced ruefully down and **its, conscious again of his pain. The panther's fangs had sunk deep under the skin."
“Didn’t do me any good,” he admitted. “I'd better get some water and iodine from the kit and fix it up."
“You’ll do nothing of the sort,” she told him spiritedly. “You’ve taken care of me long enough. Now it's my turn. You sit down there while I --" Sudden panic seized her. “Bob! The plane!”
He sniffed glumly. “I almost forgot it. Must be gone by now. Maybe we’d best light the fire, anyhow. I'll do it while you get the water."
The column of smoke was cheering , if nothing more. It rose like a beckoning finger to the sky as Judith applied stinging iodine to the teeth marks in Morgan's bare shoulder.
“Might do some good,” he grinned, “for surely someone is looking for us. But you know, if that panther spoiled much of our food, we'd be more sensible trying to get somewhere than to stay here and starve."
“Don’t be silly,” she scoffed. “You’re in no condition to go rambling around the country."
“I'm all right. What good would it do to stay here? Besides, what if the panther's mate should be back there in the cave ready to ---”
One such experience was quite a enough for her frazzled nerves.
“Bob! You're joking!”
He smiled down at her strained features, arms tightening around her.
“I don't remember how it came about, but I've never forgotten how I felt at the time. You moved away shortly afterward, and I didn't hear anything about you until four years ago. I've been keeping pretty good track of you since then."
Her eyes were as curious as her throaty "Why?”
“Couldn’t get the memory of you of my mind, I guess. That's why I took this plane on my way to see your dad about a job. I didn't think you'd recognize me, and I wanted to see you again. Then, when I did see you, I wanted to do this."
His head bent, but she was too quick for him. His lips brushed her cheek as she squirmed out of his arms and leaped to her feet.
“When I want to be kissed, I’ll tell you,“ she said, trying to straighten her hair. “If we're going, let's get started."
He rose slowly, half angry, half amused. “Sometimes I don't know whether to love you, or hate you, Judy Mason. All right, let's pack what ` we can carry, and get out of here. If we go in one direction far enough, we ought to reach someone."
They decided northeastward was as logical as any way to go. So, after salvaging what little food they could, and rolling it into the blankets, they started up a long slope in the direction they had seen the plane.
In their weakened condition, it was not long before they became tired, and were compelled to halt frequently to rest.
“I must of lost more blood than I thought,” he confessed at last as they lay panting beneath a fir. "Think we can make it to the top of the ridge? It'll be easier going on the other side."
She looked at the mass of rock in front of them and shook her head dubiously. “I don't know but we can try. Let's go up the east side, where there isn't so much snow. Here, lean on me."
“Daddy's little helper, eh?” he managed to grin. “There may be some hope for you, after all. Come on, I'm good for another hundred miles."
But he wasn’t, and Judith realized it only too well. His face was getting white, strained, and he winced with pain at every step. He had not complained about it, but she was sure the panther had somehow hurt that cracked rib.
They were going up the steepest part of the ridge now, and the high altitude took their breath. Often they slipped, skidding backward a few precious feet before they could stop and start upward again.
It was an anxious, despairing young woman who half-dragged Morgan over the crest and dropped breathlessly to the ground. Morgan closed his eyes and relaxed, exhausted. Judith was exhausted, too, but she did not relax. Instead, she was staring, fascinated, at something in the valley on the other side. A hysterical burst of laughter escaped her.
Morgan sat bolt upright, startled.
“Judy!” he cried. “What’s the matter with you?”
She pointed down the slope, unable to control her hysteria.
“There! Look!” she exclaimed brokenly. “A town, Bob, a town!”
Morgan whirled, unmindful of a twinge in his side, and stared in disbelief. A town, for sure! A drab little hamlet, dirty and squalid, surrounded by a dozen mine slag heaps, but a sight to delight the eyes of a Mecca-bound pilgrim.
"Do you understand, Bob?” Judith cried, shaking him. “A town --- and all the time we were within five miles of it! Think what might of happened to us if we'd gone some other way!”
He drew her down to him, breathing heavily.
“It isn't. I know it isn’t, she said. “Can you walk? I want to get you to a doctor. You’re getting a fever.”
“Two fevers, Judy,” he said. “One of them is because I love you.”
She laughed, but this time it was an easy laughter, with no hysteria about it.
“But you can't, Bob Morgan. You think I'm a hot house plant, a little snob, and a lot of other things. You told me so yourself."
“Oh, that. Well, you used to be. Maybe you still are, but I can't help loving you. I think I always have, even when you made me so mad I could have spanked you. Didn't you used to care for me--just a bit?”
She evaded the question by the simple expedient of burying her face against his shoulder. The pressure was painful, but he didn't mind.
“A little while ago,” she said in muffled tones, “I said I'd tell you if I wanted to be kissed. Do you think you could do such a favor for a personable young lady?”
She raised provocative, tremulous lips. There was no restraint in the soft arm that stole around his neck.
“I'll tell the world I could!” he answered happily.