Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Imminent Baby Challenge Day Five: "Post Haste"

T-minus 21 days until blast-off! Yes, I know you expected that to read 22 days, but I miscalculated - don't tell Lyn.

Today's word has given by a very good friend from university with whom I lived for some years, spending a king's random on beer and "House of the Dead" shooting galleries in the student union. He gave me "biplane" and the random genre picked was "western", two words that have an overlap of about eight years chronologically and only in about four states in the US.

So, ladies and gentlemen, I give you - "Post Haste".

 Tomorrow's word is 'shadows' and the random genre is 'steampunk', suggested by my brother!

If any more of my blog readers want to suggest a word, I'll write you a story too! (as always, the genre will get randomly picked out of a list).

Post Haste

The afternoon sun lay on us like a slab of hot iron as we waited, Pavol and me. I tried to burn the back of his neck with my gaze: the postbag over my shoulder was getting damn heavy in the heat. 

“You're an ass,” I said for the fortieth or fiftieth time.

He nodded sagely but carried on looking out over the empty desert.

“True,” he grinned. “But you worry too much.”

That was also true.

“You're a bonehead,” I continued, the rope from the postbag cutting cruelly into my shoulder.

“That remains to be seen,” he smirked as a horse whinnied in the distance. I mustered my next insult.

It had started like this: Pavol was an ass and a bonehead and I was a hard-working clerk at the finest town hall in all of Arizona. We happened to meet one night at the saloon and I recognised him as someone who could hold his liquor. He was also an engineer who was struggling to find anything better than shoeing horses in our little town. We became good friends, despite the aforementioned boneheadedness, and used to drink in the saloon late into the night on payday.

Pavol was in there most afternoons too when business was slow, listening to the old men moan about the death of the West. You'd think from the way they talked that 1912 was going to be the end of history itself, rather than our state finally joining the Union and the modern age. Yes, this was the end of the 'Old West' but something new and better would be born in its place. I was glad the railways had come here and I knew Pavol felt the same: locomotives had brought my sweet Carolyn to me and had brought the prospect of more stimulating employment for Pavol, once he had served his contract time at the blacksmiths.

He was bored and he knew it. When he was drunk, he made sure I knew it too. He had bigger dreams than a small town, he said.

That's why he did it.

I'd just finished filing some papers regarding a particularly interesting boundary dispute between two small landowners, when Pavol rushed in, sweating heavily from the noon sun and exhilarated. The other clerks tutted and looked back down at their papers, tapping them sharply on their desks if they were especially annoyed at the interruption. Dust from the desert cascaded from every fold in his jeans and...what?...tiny curls of metal from his shirt sleeves. 

“Finished,” he said triumphantly, sinking into a nearby chair and putting his boots up on my desk. Tiny offcuts of brown fabric were stuck to the soles and fluttered off like dirty snowflakes. I swept them off with the sleeve of my suit.

“Finished what?” I said. I tried to sound irritated, but I wasn't. Pavol had vanished a week ago and there'd been no whiskey in the saloon: I was honestly interested in what he'd been up to and, also, very interested in rectifying that whiskey deficit at the earliest opportunity.

“The Thunderbolt,” he said. “It's repaired.”

I shrugged. I had no idea what that meant.

Palov grabbed me by the sleeve of my suit and dragged me out of the town hall. Technically, contractually, I should've been there another fifteen minutes and my absence would raise hell when I showed up tomorrow morning, but the excitement was contagious. Perhaps 'Thunderbolt' was Pavol's name for some moonshine he'd been cooking up.

He dragged me through the painted board canyons of town and out into the desert, weaving through low scrub like he was following a path that only he could see. My shiny black shoes got dulled by red dust almost immediately. He wouldn't say anything, though he was bursting to spill the beans right here on the arid ground.

Once we were a few miles out of town and approaching one of the large bluffs outside of town, he pulled me towards a low outcropping that, I saw as I got closer, hit a cave and a large area around its mouth. Honestly, if I'd not been taken there, I would've walked straight past it.

Sat out front of the cave was a biplane.

“You're kidding me,” I exclaimed. “You've been crazy for these things ever since that newspaper about the Wright brothers in Kitty Hawk arrived.”

“Eight long years,” he sighed.

I looked it over. The fabric over the wings and body was all intact, but so heavily patched that it looked like a grandma's blanket. Bits of bent metal and splintered spars of wood littered the ground everywhere.

“What a heap of...” I began, but Palov interrupted quickly.

“Found it in the junkyard,” he explained.  “Some experimental model that never got off the ground, I reckon. The guy only charged me a dollar, on the condition that I hauled it away myself.”

“It was in a good state when you got it here?” I asked, eyeing up the one-dollar biplane more closely.

“Pretty good. I just had to remount the engine, replace a dozen broken internal spars, repair the fabric over the fuselage, patch a leak in the fuel tank and reinforce the landing struts, restring the bracing wires between the wings. Oh...and paint over the burn marks.”

“Burn marks?” I tried to interject but Pavol was still in full flow.

“It'll fly and it'll be fast. That's why I made the bet.”

My heart sank: Pavol had a lot of faith in his engineering skills, but a lost bet would mean no whiskey for weeks and I hated drinking alone.

“What bet?” I asked.

“I bet McKinley at the Post Office $100 that the Thunderbolt could get a post bag to Sourflats faster than the locomotive.”

I goggled.

Sourflats was about two hundred miles away and the train line ran there as straight as an arrow, only passing through a few small tiny desert towns on the way. It only took the train five hours to get there, factoring in refuelling and the like. It was damn fast.

Pavol was joking. He had to be.

“Last week, you were complaining that you only had forty or fifty dollars,” I smiled in relief. “You don't have one hundred dollars to bet.”

He looked at me for a long time.

“But you don't know where I keep my money,” I protested.

He looked at me again.

“But it's safe in the Bible by my bed,” I said.

He looked at me, long and hard.

“You're an ass,” I complained.

“It's a racing cert,” he said with a grin. “Besides, I need someone to read the map.”

To my escalating horror, I saw that the biplane had two seats in tandem: one for a pilot and one for a  navigator.

“Does McKinley already have the money?” I said, heart sinking.

“And we already have the post bag,” he said, smirking. “We fly first thing tomorrow morning.”

He started down the slope towards the biplane.

“Burn marks?” I shouted after him.


I tried. I really did, but McKinley would not budge on my share of the bet.

“Received in good faith,” was all she'd say, looking over her glasses at me across the counter.

I had thought to try the angle that trusting Pavol with the mail was a bad idea, that it would get lost or incinerated, but I realised as I walked through the Post Office door and saw the repressed little smirk that she never expected Palov's 'Thunderbolt' to get off the ground. At the worst, in her eyes, the Sourflats post would be a little late, but she'd been $100 richer.

I walked back slowly to the town hall, scuffing my dust-caked shoes through the sand of Main Street, and tried to explain to my boss why I needed the day off tomorrow. Apparently, he was a sucker for stories about dying grandmothers.

Now all I needed to do was convinced Carolyn of two things: firstly, that this had been my idea all along and secondly, that this was a good idea.

That went less well. Fiancées are less gullible than head clerks, it would seem.


The next morning, I met Palov at the biplane, just as the sun was rising over the mesa. He gave me a big thumbs up, slapped my shoulder heartily and told me that I worry too much.

Though my friend, at that moment, I could've killed him. No-one would know, I reasoned, this far out in the desert. I just had to push that cheerfully grinning face into the propellor and...

“It'll be fine,” he reassured me as he climbed into the pilot's seat. “Stop worrying.”

The navigator's nook was a little too snug for someone with a sedentary job like me: my knees were up around my chin, a situation made even worse by the postbag crammed between my legs.

The propeller spun up to speed and the engine started gouting black smoke into the pale dawn light.

“Right,” Pavol said, turning round. “The Thunderbolt should get us to Sourflats in about four hours, easily ahead of the train because we're not stopping for passengers or water or anything. I'm going to follow the train line straight there – it seems easiest – but if we get lost, you'll need to read the map.”

I noticed the ground ahead of the plane had been flattened – the scrub had been pulled up and the rocks had been shoved to the sides. Palov had been busy since I'd seen him last night.

“Have you slept?” I said, but he turned back to the controls. I bit my knuckle hard.

Without any warning, the little biplane began to bounce across the desert, gaining speed slowly. Every jolt made my back teeth click together. The wind began to blow across my face more and more fiercely.

“Shouldn't we wear goggles or something?” I shouted over the sound of the roaring engine. Pavol just shrugged.

The plane rolled faster and faster; the wooden frame began to creak and shudder and the taut wires between the wings began to sing like harp strings. With one final lurch like a great beast dying, we were airborne. 

Parched land slid by underneath, further and further away. I saw my friend's shoulders drop in relief, but all the while I was waiting for the engine to explode. It was a foolish thought: that wouldn't happen for some hours yet.

“Which way to Sourflats?” he yelled over the rasping engine. I didn't need the map yet. The train line was a black slash leading across the landscape to the north-east. I just tapped his shoulder and pointed. The Thunderbolt responded as quickly as a cow with a broken leg and soon the accelerating biplane was eating up the miles.

As our town shrank and vanished, I mulled over Palov's luck. It was a strange thing that luck. Neither of us was especially good at planning anything, but always – or as close to always as I could remember – Palov's luck turned the spectre of disaster into a victory. Back when we'd first met, I'd tried to mimic that devil-may-care attitude but without that streak of luck, it just led to embarrassing situations with the police when I'd fallen asleep on the street outside our lodgings – that sort of thing.
Maybe his luck would hold true again. Finding a mostly intact biplane dumped was lucky, having the skills to repair it was lucky, being about to get it off the ground was lucky: maybe we really could do this.

“There!” I banged on his shoulder. He turned to look and the Thunderbolt took an alarming lurch to the side. Once I'd prised my fingers off the fuselage, I pointed out the steam locomotive. It had already had to stop at one of the small satellite settlements around the town. Little white clouds rose  leisurely from its bright red funnel: it didn't look like it was in a hurry to go anywhere.

 The miles slipped by rapidly. The sky was blue, without any wind. The locomotive, tied to dusty earth by steel rails, was no match for this...

The metaphor died in my mind. I would not describe this thing as a lithe fish. Stranded whale, maybe. Lord knows how Pavol was going to land this thing.

I had a sinking feeling.

“Oy!” I yelled. “Do you know how to land?”

Pavol just shrugged.

“How hard can it be?” he said. “You worry too much!”

It was a concern well expressed because, later, a scant five miles outside of Sourflats, the engine seized up with the shriek of a dying horse. One second, the propellers were spinning in a blur. The next, they rotated loosely, impotently.

The plane began to drop, slowly at first, then faster and faster. There was no sound save the increasingly tortured creak of fabric over wood.

“Uh...” Pavol managed before all of his attention was occupied.

The Thunderbolt hurtled towards the ground and everything broke apart into individually parcelled seconds. Pavol braced his feet and started yanking back on the control stick. Wires groaned weakly inside the plane's body. The plane's nose began to rise impossibly slowly. Scrub hurtled upwards. A crunch and a twang and a thud – it was down! The little biplane bounced roughly from mound to mound, but slower and slower.

It rolled to a stop, safe but broken. The Thunderbolt would never fly again. The bet was lost.

“Ass,” I called again as we waited by the road into Sourflats. “Ass and a bonehead and a gooper too.”

This was exactly the sort of stupid situation I'd get myself into, but Pavol kept fiddling with a bit of plane that he'd swiped like it was sort of lucky talisman. The steam locomotive was still some distance behind us, but five miles short and with no engine, there was nothing we could do to move the Thunderbolt except push it.

“That was wedding money, you ass,” I started again, but a stagecoach rattled over the horizon. It wasn't the one from our town – the railway had killed that stone dead years ago – so it must've been from somewhere not yet connected up to civilisation.

Horses thundered, wheels span, plumes of dust rose high up into the flawless sky. It was a fossil of the Old West, back from the days when armed bandits held up...

I noticed that the piece of wrecked engine that Pavol held could, in the right light and if carefully concealed, look like a pistol to the untrained eye.

It's something about the wide open land and sky. It encourages lawlessness; it encourages recklessness.

But that's how the Thunderbolt delivered the post. Not soaring like an eagle through the air, but strapped to a team of horses that my friend had stolen from the Blindscar stage, lashed firmly to each wing.

“Hey-up!” he'd yelled, cracking the whip. The horses neighed and the strangest stagecoach ever in Arizona, if not the West, was on the move.

For a time, for the forty minutes it took us to drive the stage into Sourflats, I didn't worry. It was glorious; it was a last hurrah of the Old West. We out-raced tumbleweed and we out-raced the wind. My map fluttered madly up into the sky and escaped into the untamed badlands. Freedom was in the air. I wouldn't worry anymore, not when I had the neigh of horses, the crack of the leather harness and the squeal as the landing gears started to buckle. 

Worry returned then, especially when I remembered that what Pavol had done had broken the law.

He won the bet fair and square: the Thunderbolt delivered the mail mere minutes before the steam train pulled in. He won the bet and most of the winnings went on compensating the stage coach owner for the trouble and on a fairly sizeable bribe to keep the Sourflat's sheriff out of the picture. 

The Thunderbolt he sold on, for a dollar and we took the train back to town in the morning.

Pavol was less bored, for a while.

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