Jack Higgins - The Last Place God Made
And this one for my sister-in-law,Babs Hewltt
Who is absolutely certain it's about time...
When tr.4. port wing began to flap I knew I was in trouble, not that I hadn't been for some little time. Oil pressure mainly plus a disturbing miss in the beat of the old Pratt and Whitney Wasp engine that put me uncomfortably in mind of the rattle in a dying man's throat.
The Vega had been good enough in its day. Typical of that sudden rush of small high-winged, single-engined airliners that appeared in the mid-1920s. Built to carry mail and half a dozen passengers at a hundred or so miles an hour.
The one I was trying to keep in the air at that precise moment in time had been built in 1927 which made it eleven years old. Eleven years of flying mail in every kind of weather. Of in-adequate servicing. Of over use.
She'd been put together again after no fewer than three crash landings and that was only what was officially entered in the log. God alone knows what had been missed out.
Kansas, Mexico, Panama, Peru, sinking a little lower with each move, finding it that much more difficult to turn in her best performance, like a good horse being worked to death. Now, she was breaking up around me in the air and there wasn't much I could do about it.
From Iquitos in Peru, the Amazon river twists like a brown snake through two thousand miles of some of the worst jungle in the world, its final destination Belem on the Atlantic coast of Brazil with Manaus at the junction with the Rio Negro, the halfway point and my present destination.
For most of the way, I'd followed the river which at least made for easy navigation, alone with three sacks of mail and a couple of crates of some kind of mining machinery. Six long, hard hours to Tefe and I managed to raise three police posts on the way on my radio although things were quiet as the grave at Tefe itself.
From there, the river drifted away in a great, wide loop and to have followed it would have made the run to Manaus another four hundred miles and the Vega just didn't have that kind of fuel in reserve.
From Tefe, then, I struck out due east across virgin jungle, aiming for the Rio Negro a hundred and fifty miles farther on where a turn downstream would bring me to Manaus.
It had been a crazy venture from the first, a flight that to my knowledge no one had accomplished at that tune and yet at twenty-three, with the sap rising, a man tends to think him-self capable of most things and Belem was, after all, two thou-sand miles closer to England than the point from which I'd started and a passage home at the end of it
Yet I see now, looking back on it all after so many years, how much in the whole affair was the product of chance, that element quite beyond calculation in a man's affairs.
To start with, my bold plunge across such a wide stretch of virgin jungle was not quite as insane as it might appear. True, any attempt at dead reckoning was ruled out by the simple fact that my drift indicator was not working and the magnetic com-pass was wholly unreliable, but the Rio Negro did lie a hun-dred and fifty miles due east of Tefe, that was fact, and I had the sun to guide me in a sky so crystal dear that the horizon seemed to stretch to infinity.
Falling oil pressure was the first of my woes although I didn't worry too much about that to start with for the Oil Pres-sure Gauge, like most of the instruments, frequently didn't work at all and was at best, less than reliable.
And then, unbelievably, the horizon broke into a series of jagged peaks almost before my eyes, something else about which I couldn't really complain for on the map, that particular sec-tion was merely a blank space.
Not that they were the Andes exactly, but high enough, con-sidering the Vega's general condition, although the altimeter packed in at four thousand feet, so everything after that was guesswork.
The sensible way of doing things would have been to stay far enough from them to be out of harm's way and then to gain the correct height to cross the range by flying round and round in upward spirals for as long as may be. But I didn't have time enough for that, by which I mean fuel and simply eased back the stick and went in on the run.
I don't suppose there was more than four or five hundred feet in it as I started across the first great shoulder that lifted in a hog's back out of the dark green of the rain forest. Beyond, I faced a scattering of jagged peaks and not too much time for decisions.
I took a chance, aimed for the gap between the two largest and flew on over a landscape so barren that it might have been the moon. I dropped sickeningly in an air pocket, the Vega pro-testing with every fibre of its being and I eased back the stick again as the ground rose to meet me.
For a while it began to look as if I'd made a bad mistake for the pass through which I was flying narrowed considerably so that at one point, there seemed every chance of the wing-tips brushing the rock face. And then, quite suddenly, I lifted over a great, fissured ridge with no more than a hundred feet to spare and found myself flying across an enormous valley, mist rising to engulf me like steam from a boiling pot.
Suddenly, it was a lot colder and rain drifted across the windshield in a fine spray and then the horizon of things crackled with electricity as rain swept in from the east in a great cloud to engulf me.
Violent tropical storms of that type were one of the daily hazards of flying in the area. Frequent and usually short-lived, they could wreak an incredible amount of damage and the par-ticular danger was the lightning associated with them. It was usually best to climb over them, but the Vega was already as high as she was going to go considering the state she was in so I really had no other choice than to hang on and hope for the best
I didn't think of dying, I was too involved in keeping the plane in the air to have time for anything else. The Vega was made of wood. Cantilevered wings and streamlined wooden skin fuselage, manufactured in two halves and glued together like a child's toy and now, the toy was tearing itself to pieces.
Outside, it was almost completely dark and water cascaded in through every strained seam in the fuselage as we rocked in the turbulence. Rain streamed from the wings, lightning flicker-ing at their tips and pieces of fuselage started to flake away.
I felt a kind of exultation more than anything else at the sheer involvement of trying to control that dying plane and actually laughed out loud at one point when a section of the roof went and water cascaded in over my head.
I came out into bright sunlight of the late afternoon and saw the river on the horizon immediately. It had to be the Negro and I pushed the Vega towardsit, ignoring the stench of burning oil, the rattling of the wings.
Pieces were breaking away from the fuselage constantly now and the Vega was losing height steadily. God alone knows what was keeping the engine going. It was really quite extraordinary. Any minute now, and the damn thing might pack up altogether and a crash landing in that impenetrable rain forest below was not something I could reasonably hope to survive.
A voice crackled in my earphone. "Heh, Vega, your wings are flapping so much I thought you were a bird. What's keeping you up?"
He came up from nowhere and levelled out off my port wing, aHayley monoplane in scarlet and silver trim, no more than four or five years old from the look of it. The voice was Ameri-can and with a distinctive harshness to it that gave it its own flavour in spite of the static that was trying to drown it
"Who are you?'
"Neil Mallory," I said. "Iquitos for Belem by way of Manaus."
"Jesus." He laughed harshly. "I thought it was Lindberg they called the flying fool. Manaus is just on a hundred miles down-river from here. Can you stay afloat that long?"
Another hour at least.I checked the fuel gauge and air-speed indicator and faced the inevitable. "Not a chance. Speed's fall-ing all the time and my tank's nearly dry."
"No use jumping for it in this kind of country," he said. "You'd never be seen again. Can you hold her together for another ten minutes?"
"I can try."
"There's a patch ofcampo ten or fifteen miles downstream. Give you a chance to land that thing if you're good enough."
I didn't reply because the fuselage actually started to tear away in a great strip from the port wing and the wing, as if in pain, moved up and down more frantically than ever.
I was about a thousand feet up as we reached the Negro and turned downstream, drifting gradually and inevitably towards the ground like a falling leaf. There was sweat on my face in spite of the wind rushing in through the holes in the fuselage and my hands were cramped tight on the stick for it was taking all my strength to hold her.
"Easy, kid, easy." That strange, harsh voice crackled through the static. "Not long now. A mile downstream on your left. I'd tell you to start losing height only you're falling like a stone as it is."
"I love you too," I said and clamped my teeth hard together and held on as the Vega lurched violently to starboard.
The campoblossomed in the jungle a quarter of a mile in front of me, a couple of hundred yards of grassland beside the river. The wind seemed to be in the right direction although in the stare the Vega was in, there wasn't much I could have done about it if it hadn't been. I hardly needed to throttle back to reduce airspeed for my approach - the engine had almost stopped anyway - but I got the tail trimmer adjusted and dropped the flaps as I floated in across the tree-tops.
It took all my strength to hold her, stamping on the rudder to pull her back in line as she veered to starboard. It almost worked. I plunged down, with a final burst of power to level out for my landing and the engine chose that precise moment to die on me.
It was like running slap into an invisible wall. The Vega seemed to hang there in the air a hundred feet above the ground for a moment, then swooped.
I left the undercarriage in the branches of the trees at the west end of thecampo. In fact I think, in the final analysis, that was what saved me for the braking effect on the plane as she barged through the top of the trees was considerable. She simply flopped down on her belly on thecampo and ploughed forward through the six-foot-high grass, leaving both wings behind her on the way and came to a dead halt perhaps twenty yards from the bank of the river.
I unstrapped my seat belt, kicked open the door, threw out the mail bags and followed them through, just in case. But there was no need and the fact that she hadn't gone up like a torch on impact wasn't luck. It was simply that there wasn't anything left in the tanks to burn.
I sat down very carefully on one of the mail sacks. My hands were trembling slightly - not much, but enough - and my heart was pounding like a trip-hammer. The Hayley swooped low overhead. I waved without looking up, then unzipped my flying jacket and found a tin of Balkan Sobranie cigarettes, last of carton I'd bought on the black market in Lima the previous month. I don't think anything in life to that moment had ever tasted as good.
After a while, I stood up and turned in time to see the Hayley bank and drop in over the trees on the far side of thecampo. He made it look easy and it was far from that, for the wreckage of the Vega and the position where its wings had come to rest in its wake left him very little margin for error. There couldn't have been more than a dozen yards between the tip of his port wing and the edge of the trees.
I sat down on one of the mail sacks again, mainly because my legs suddenly felt very weak and lit another Sobranie. I could hear him ploughing towards me through the long grass, and once he called my name. God knows why I didn't answer. Some kind of shock. I suppose. I simply sat there, the cigarette slack between my lips and stared beyond the wreck of the Vega to the river, taking in every sight and sound in minute detail as if to prove I was alive.
"By God, you can fly, boy. I'll say that for you."
He emerged from the grass and stood looking at me, hands on hips in what I was to learn was an inimitable gesture. He was physically very big indeed and wore a leather top-coat, breeches, knee-length boots, a leather helmet, goggles pushed up high on the forehead and there was a.45 Colt automatic in a holster on his right thigh.