Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
Mark didn’t like the looks of the sky in front of them. "Better take it to the left a little," he told Jackie.
Obediently, Jackie banked Rocinante to the left a little, and settled down on a course that would take them closer to the shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico and hopefully around the huge thunderhead building in front of them.
Mark had let Jackie handle the controls as far back as the trip back from Lordston. He’d noticed she wasn’t scared of handling the Stinson on that trip, and at the same time she didn’t have any tendency to over control. Flying straight and level is the first thing any student pilot learns, and it can be one of the more difficult, since flying straight and level is a series of gentle turns and banks while keeping the airplane’s pitch in adjustment by gentle correction. There’s not a lot of difference between not enough and too much, but Jackie had instinctively seemed to understand it.
After he had Rocinante flying, it turned out she had taken to the lighter airplane just as readily. Mark’s own learning to fly had not come out of the textbook, since he’d been flying the Stinson before he was old enough to see the horizon over the panel. When the time came for formal instruction, he shot through many of the things flight instructors normally have to take time with, thanks to the years of previous experience. Still, he knew enough of the basics of pre-solo flight instruction to run Jackie through some of the paces while they were getting a few hours on the Cessna at Spearfish Lake. On the trip southward, Jackie had proved to be good at following a compass course as well.
Just for fun, when they’d landed at Everglades City, Mark had talked her through the landing, even though he wasn’t a flight instructor. It had worked out pretty well – so well, in fact, he let her try the takeoff when they left after they’d had their fill of watching the astronauts on the moon. He didn’t have to do as much to talk her through the landing at Orlando West, and it went so well, and the airport was so empty, they shot a few touch and goes, with Jackie doing the flying.
At Orlando they had spent a day visiting the new Disney World. Both of them remembered how, as children, they had wanted to visit Disneyland in California, but it seemed as if the chance would never come. Now it looked as if they had entered a dream world, but, somehow, the reality seemed a little less fantastic than the dream. They pretty well covered all the ground they wanted to the first day they were there and it seemed pointless to go back for a second day to see the few things they had missed.
Still, Disney World was a thrill, and it seemed like they should have some memento to remember it by. They each bought Mickey Mouse T-shirts, and Mark bought Jackie a small transistor radio, giving it to her saying, "Happy birthday."
"It’s not my birthday," she protested. "It’s in August."
"Well, happy pre-birthday," he told her. "I figure we can listen to it when we’re sitting around camp in the evenings, or maybe in the plane on long, dull flights."
"That’s sweet of you," she replied with a little kiss.
From Orlando, they flew up to Daytona Beach to check out all the spring break activity. Had things turned out a little different for the both of them, they might have been among the drunken college kids rampaging up and down the beach, but somehow, now, it seemed a little pointless to them. They weren’t escaping from a spring full of classes on a desperate search for fun, and somehow it had seemed a little overdone. An hour of checking out the scene, with all the college girls in bikinis so scanty they made Jackie’s seem downright conservative to both of them, was all they had needed.
Still thinking like tourists, they went back to Rocinante, flew up to St. Augustine, and spent the next two nights there, exploring the old town in the day in between. The next day, they flew across the state to Cedar Key, and spent another hour there letting Jackie shoot touch and goes at the almost deserted airport. Mark could see her skill was rapidly improving, and he began to think that sooner or later he would have to find a real flight instructor to go over some of the things he was sure he had missed.
That evening they camped on the deserted beach, cooking hamburger steaks from the meat they had bought in town and filling the meal out with canned beans. As dark fell, they made a little fire, and spent some time looking out over the Gulf of Mexico to see the lights of the shrimp boats in the distant darkness.
They’d brought the telescope with them to the camp, a lot of trouble, but it was right around the new moon. It was thrilling to look up and see a great view of the southern sky out over the darkness of the water, and they spent quite a bit of time at it.
In the darkness, long after the fire burned out, they dared each other to go skinny-dipping. With an indescribable thrill, they had each stripped off their clothes in the darkness and went splashing into the water for half an hour of giggling and cavorting before the thrill wore off. Afterward they went back up on shore, put on some clothes, and turned into their sleeping bags.
They had enjoyed their evening and night at Cedar Key so much they stayed there another day to enjoy the peace, after seeing nothing but crowds at Disney World, Daytona Beach, and St. Augustine. About all they did that day was lie around, work on their tans, spend some time bird watching with the bird book they’d bought in St. Augustine, and listen to the radio. The last, they didn’t do a lot; about all they could get was country music or religious programming of the loud and brainless type, and both of them agreed a little of either went a long way.
That evening, they turned the telescope on the thin crescent of the young moon, and Jackie thrilled to see the tops of the lunar mountains hanging out in space, and the tremendous relief of the craters and mountains in the low-angle light. It was quite a sight, and they wondered if it had looked as strange and as thrilling to the astronauts, who had splashed down in the Pacific a few days before. After they put the telescope away, they teased each other about going skinny-dipping again, but somehow the thrill didn’t seem to be the same, and both sensed that doing it again could lead them to places they didn’t want to go just yet.
The next morning, they packed up their gear and went into town. They took the time to go grocery shopping, as they could only carry a little food with them in the plane, and it was getting low. While they were there they took the opportunity to do laundry, and it was after noon before they’d gotten back to Rocinante and loaded the plane up again, to head toward Pensacola where Mark wanted to see the Naval Air Museum.
They had gotten a little more used to the warmer weather by now. For days, the skies had been pretty clear and the temperatures warm, but not oppressive. The afternoon skies had been filled with the puffy white cotton balls of cumulus clouds. They had been in a small thunderstorm once, while they were exploring Disney World, and Mark had worried about Rocinante at its tie downs, far away at the grass field at Orlando West, but when they got back there that evening they found the thunderstorm had missed the airport entirely.
There was no good way to check the weather from Cedar Key, but it looked like it was going to be another nice day, so Mark didn’t worry much about it. Between the country music on the radio blaring away in the laundromat, the announcer had said something about "possible afternoon thunderstorms." But, the sky was benign, and Mark thought he was talking through his hat; at best, if there were thunderstorms, he figured they would be local, and they could fly around the edges.
The thunderstorm that loomed ahead of them, half an hour out of Cedar Key, seemed to fall in that category. They had been following the highway through the rough afternoon air across what seemed to be an eternity of pine forest, not unlike what they were used to back home, and Mark could see another buildup far off to the southwest. Dodging over toward the Gulf of Mexico to avoid the thunderstorm didn’t seem like a big deal; they could follow the coast around just as well as they could follow the highway.
"You want to watch out for those things," Mark told Jackie. "They’re something you just don’t want to tangle with."
Jackie looked down at the pine forest below them. "I thought the forests were kind of empty back home," she told him. "But there’s nothing out there but trees."
Mark glanced out his window at the ground. "Yeah, there’s not a hell of a lot here," he said, and then went back to trying to figure out what they were going to have to do next.
They had reached the coastline before they could turn back to the right and try to skirt the thunderhead. It hung dark and ominous off the right wing. Rocinante’s high wing obscured much of the view directly toward the thunderstorm, but there was plenty to see ahead and to the right of them, and none of it looked good. This was more than a "scattered thunderstorm" Mark realized; this was a big, well-developed thunderhead.
Finally, they were able to turn to the north a little, to try and pick up the highway they had been following earlier; they had gotten behind the thunderstorm. The air here was smooth and calm and a bit cooler than it had been before. Off in the distance, they could see the slash of the highway through the trees, and Mark told Jackie to turn back westerly, to follow the trend of the highway and the coastline.
Visibility behind the thunderstorm wasn’t particularly good; things were dark and gray around them, with the high walls of the clouds shielding the sun from them. They flew westerly for just a couple minutes before Mark made out another ominous looming of darkness in front of them: another thunderstorm was following the first one. He looked to the north and south, trying to figure out how to pick a way around this one.
"I don’t like this," Jackie said, a little edge on her voice.
"Me, either," Mark agreed. "I think we’d better go back where we came from and wait until this stuff blows through. Why don’t you head us back to the southeast, and I’ll take a look at the map and see if there’s any place we can land."
Mark pulled the map from the pocket. He hadn’t really been paying much attention to it, other than make a mental note that when the highway came out to the coast, and the coast turned westward, he would have to start keeping an eye on it. As a result, he wasn’t real sure where they were.
A quick check of the map told him he should have been paying more mind to his navigation. The airport at Perry had to be close by someplace, but he wasn’t sure where it might be. If it was to the east of them, or to the northeast, they could follow along behind the thunderstorm to the east of them, and land before the next one hit. But, if the airport were to the north or northwest of them, then there just wasn’t a heck of a lot to the east of them for places to land.
This wasn’t the time to find a road and follow it until they got some hint of where they were. If they were going to Perry, then they had to have a pretty good idea of where it was. It was not the first time Mark cursed for not having the money to put a VOR radio navigation system in the Cessna, but this time was worse than most.
As Mark studied the map, Jackie was turning the plane around. "Which way do we head?" she asked.
"South, I guess," Mark said, just not sure. They still should have been able to sneak back through the hole they had come through only minutes before.
"Out over the ocean?" Jackie asked.
Mark looked up from the map. Sure enough, they could see the storm they had just skirted now extended out over the water. They flew south for another couple of minutes, but there was no sign of the hole they had earlier passed through. Flying out over the gulf, without any idea of where they were, was a foolish idea, at best.
With a sinking feeling, Mark told Jackie to turn back to the north. Perhaps they could fly north a bit, and find a place to land. If they could find the highway again, and it was running in the right direction, perhaps they could follow the road into Perry after all.
As soon as they turned back to the north, though, the sky looked ominous indeed. In the couple of minutes they had been flying south, things had gotten a lot worse, and Mark wondered if they could even find the highway. "Oh, shit," he said, realizing he was in trouble, now.
"What do we do now?" Jackie asked.
"Damned if I know," Mark said. "The only thing I can think of is to get down lower, and see if maybe we can find a way to pick our way through the one to the west of us. It looks a little lighter to the left, but this could be tough."
By now, Jackie was beginning to realize Mark was worried. The air was still only moderately rough, no worse than it had been all afternoon, but she didn’t like the looks of those threatening clouds any more than Mark did. "I . . . I think you’d better fly this now," she said.
"Fine," Mark said, taking the wheel and turning the plane roughly toward the west as he reduced power to let down. "Here, hang onto this chart. I think we’re around here, someplace," he said, indicating an area of chart about three or four inches long along the coast – a distance of about thirty miles. "If you recognize anything, let me know."
Jackie took a look at the chart in the rough air. In the thirty-mile area, there were only the signs of a few small rivers coming out to the coast, and a couple ill-defined points that probably would be difficult to pick out from the air. She looked out the window, and all she could see was pine forest and other green. They were a couple miles inland from the coast, and it was out Mark’s side of the plane, so she couldn’t see it very well. Up ahead, she could see the deeper green of a swampy area, and could vaguely make out a river in the distance.
Suddenly, she could make out a road below them, and a few houses, but there was nothing anywhere on the map that looked remotely like what she was seeing on the ground – and then she saw something else. "Mark!" she yelled. "There’s an airstrip down there!"
"There’s nothing on the map along in here along the coast until you get way the hell west," he said. "Are you sure?"
"All I know is there’s a T-hangar, like the ones at Spearfish Lake," she told him. "There’s a windsock. It looks like an airstrip. That’s all I can see."
Mark stood Rocinante on its wingtip to make a quick turn to the right, so he could see out her side of the plane. As Rocinante’s left wing came up, he could get a good look out the side at the oncoming thunderstorm – a huge one, bigger than he wanted to tangle with. He straightened out on a northbound heading and looked down. Sure enough, it looked like an airstrip. There was a single T-hangar, and no planes tied outside, but there was a pole with an orange windsock hanging from it.
"Any old port in a storm," he said, pulling on the carb heat. "I don’t care if it’s a private field or not. Let’s hope we can find some tie downs. If that ground is hard, then we’re going to have a heck of a time getting the portable stakes in." The portable tie downs, stored under Jackie’s seat, had to be screwed into the ground. They were a pain to use, and were not as solid as a block of cement or a deadman set in the ground, like permanent tie downs. Worse, a lot of this Florida soil was sandy, and they might not hold very well. Maybe, just maybe, the T-hangar would be empty, and he could borrow it for a few minutes, hoping whoever owned this strip wouldn’t mind.
Mark didn’t bother to fly a pattern; he made a parody of an approach, saw he was high, and stood Rocinante on its side in a steep sideslip to make it to the little slash through the trees. They almost fell out of the sky; at something that seemed to Mark like a reasonable altitude, and almost like crashing to Jackie, he stomped on the opposite rudder, straightening the Cessna up, and eased back on the wheel to kill off some speed.
They landed rather far down the airstrip, which was fine with Mark as they would have less distance to taxi to get to the hangar, where there might be some tie downs. He rolled down the runway at a good clip, splashing up water from puddles left by the earlier storm. The windsock on the hangar in front of them hung limp, but beyond it, they could see the black wall of the second thunderstorm approaching, lit by closely repeated flashes of lightning.
Mark turned off of the runway right in front of the hangar, which was only a few feet off of the strip. Inside the open front of it, he could see a tractor and wagon sitting. "Don’t guess we get to use the hangar," he said. "There ought to be a tie down around here somewhere. Look for some ropes lying on the ground."
"Out my side," Jackie replied, pointing. "About twenty feet over."
"Thank God," Mark said, looking where she was pointing. It was hard to tell how stout the tie downs were, but there was good thick rope lying there. He stomped on the rudder to swing Rocinante around, to taxi over the tie downs. "Use their ropes first," he told Jackie, the excitement running high in his voice. "Then we’ll use ours over them. We don’t know how good those ropes are."
More or less over the tie downs, Mark pulled back the mixture knob and shut off the magneto switches. The prop was still turning as he opened his door, piled out, and ran for the tie down rope lying on the ground.
On the far side of the plane, Jackie was hardly slower. Mark had long before shown her the taut line hitch used to tie the wings to the ground, and she started to thread it as she felt the wing come tight from Mark’s side. She was just pulling the rope tight when she felt Rocinante surge backward a foot or two, and looked up to see Mark pulling the rope tight to the tail; he had moved quickly. "Now our ropes," he yelled, running for Jackie’s side of the cockpit as the wind started to rise and the first drops of rain started to fall.
It took a couple of minutes to get the ropes out from under Jackie’s seat and untangle them, and by then the rain was falling in sheets. Jackie took one of the ropes, clipped the snap hook at the end through the iron ring on the tie down set into the ground, and threaded it through the ring on the wing, as Mark charged off through the rain to the far wing. In only a minute or two, he was back with her under the wing, soaked to the skin.
"It if weren’t raining so hard," he yelled, "We might try going over to the T-hangar to keep from getting rained on so badly, but I guess this will have to do."
"You want to get back in the plane?" she yelled over the noise and the thunder of the storm. By now, she was nearly as wet as Mark, from all of the wind-driven rain that had blown up under the wing.
"We’re so wet, we’ll just get everything inside soaked," Mark said. "And besides, if these tie downs don’t hold, I’d rather be outside."
The storm was vicious, violent; heavy sheets of rain fell, driven by wild turbulent winds that tossed the treetops around and even set whole trees to moving. The windsock atop the pole fluttered this way and that, and it was difficult to see very far beyond it. "I’m sure glad we’re not trying to fly through this," Jackie yelled after a minute or two.
"Yeah," Mark said, "I think we made it just in time."
In a minute or two, the wind and the rain began to die down just a bit. It was still raining hard, but now it was more or less coming straight down, and raining in buckets. They tried to stand back under the wing as best as they could, more to keep the rain from falling directly on them rather than for any futile effort to stay dry.
After three or four minutes, the rain stopped, virtually all at once. There was still a lot of wind and noise from the storm around them. "I don’t think it’s over with," Mark said. "Maybe we’d better get over to the T-hangar while we’ve got a chance."
"Good idea," she agreed. "I am soaked to the skin."
They were in no mood to run, but they walked quickly toward the T-hangar, perhaps fifty yards away. Halfway there, Jackie stopped. "That’s funny," she said, "I’d swear I heard a heavy freight close by, but I didn’t see any railroad tracks when we landed."
The hair stood up on the back of Mark’s neck. Now, he heard the sound Jackie was talking about, and they both turned to look.
The sight behind them almost froze them with horror: a huge funnel cloud, hanging down below the thunderstorm. The tornado was obviously on the ground; they could see pieces of debris picked up and tossed into the air. Was it moving toward them? Mark could see it was getting closer, but was it also moving to one side a little? He couldn’t tell in the few seconds he stood there, jaw agape at the sight.
He knew – they knew – they should run for cover, but what cover?
Jackie started for the T-hangar – at least it was something – but Mark thought it looked pretty flimsy. Behind the T-hangar, though, was a big cinder block barbecue pit. He couldn’t tell at first glance if it was big enough to possibly crawl into, but at least it would be something substantial to hide behind. "Jackie, come on!" he yelled, grabbing her hand and leading her away from her initial shelter selection. Now they were running, running as hard as they could go for the marginal shelter of the barbecue pit. As he ran, Mark wondered at what possible reason there could be for having a barbeque pit at a little country airstrip, but at the moment he was just glad it was there. Quickly, they were hunkering down behind it, in what little shelter it provided, peeking around the block at the approaching tornado’s surly black funnel.
From the faint shelter of their vantage point, Mark and Jackie could see the tornado was moving to one side a little – not much, but at least it looked like it wouldn’t hit them directly. "Get down," he yelled at Jackie, his adrenalin pumping hard. "Get down, cover your head with your hands. There’s going to be all kinds of crap landing around here."
Obediently, Jackie lay down, and covered her head as best as she could. Mark tried to lay down more or less on top of her, to protect her as best as he could with his body. He took a final glance at the tornado – it couldn’t miss by much – and wondered for a second if Rocinante would ride it out. If the plane could, fine, but right now their lives were more at stake. The sound and the noise from the storm was incredible; they could hear full-grown trees being snapped like matchsticks from the violent winds.
Mark snuggled up against Jackie the best he could and covered his own head. The sound became greater, even more violent, and then started to drop as the tornado passed them by, not far away. They were starting to relax a little when there was a loud "whack" on the far side of the barbecue pit; Mark thought for an instant someone had fired a gun – not a pistol or anything small, but something like a recoilless antitank rifle. They both scrunched back down behind the barbecue pit as the roaring died away slowly.
It was a long time before they dared put their heads up again. It was extraordinarily quiet, or perhaps they had just been deafened by the roar of the storm. From their shelter by the barbecue pit, they could see the tornado moving away from them, some distance off now.
Cautiously, Mark stuck his head up, and looked off in the direction the tornado had come from. The sky was lighter off that way, now; in the distance there was a ray of sunshine beaming down through the clouds. "I think we made it," he said as he slid himself off Jackie.
Their hearts were pumping hard from the excitement and the fear and the relief, and it was all they could do to pick themselves up. Mark wanted a cigarette, just then, more than anything in the world, but the cigarettes were back in Rocinante, and the sight of the tornado going off in the distance was even more fascinating.
When he did finally turn around to look at the Cessna, he was surprised to see it sitting peacefully at its tie downs, seemingly little worse for wear.
"Hey, Mark, look," Jackie said, diverting his attention from the plane.
On the far side of the barbeque pit, upwind of where they had taken shelter, a board, a decent length of two by four had hit the barbeque pit, punching through both layers of concrete in one of the blocks. If the board had gone through another layer of block, the next thing hit would have been the two bodies sheltering behind it.
"Jesus, would you look at that!" Mark said. "How fast could that thing have been going?" He felt himself shaking a little, needing a cigarette to calm his nerves more than ever.
Both their minds were still racing as they walked over to Rocinante. Mark opened the door and rummaged in his pack. The pack of cigarettes there was new from Cedar Key; the last pack had lasted all the way from Spearfish Lake. His hands were shaking as he fumbled with the wrapper and ripped the top off of the pack. He pulled a cigarette out, and stuffed the rest of the pack into his shirt pocket. There was a lighter in the flap of the pack; he was fumbling for it when Jackie said, "Hey, Mark, look at this."
He pulled the lighter out and backed out of the luggage compartment, to turn around and look where Jackie pointed.
On the bottom side of the wing, right in the center and halfway out, was an exit hole that looked as if someone had thrown a baseball through the wing. Mark felt his heart sink; without lighting the cigarette, he walked over and looked at the hole.
Even at the first glance, it was easy to see something had gone clear through the fabric of the wing. He knew the Ceconite fabric was resilient, and looked down at the ground, where half-buried in the muddy grass he found a splintered, broken piece of wood that looked like it had been part of the trunk of a pine tree until a few minutes before. It had to have come almost straight down, judging from the path it had taken through the wing.
"I’m glad we weren’t standing under the wing when that thing hit," Jackie said.
"Yeah, me too," Mark agreed, remembering he had an unlit cigarette in his mouth. He looked carefully; the hole didn’t seem to be anywhere near the gas tank, and miraculously, it seemed to have missed all of the spars and ribs and cables beneath the fabric. Still, he stepped out from under the wing before he lit the cigarette, and Jackie stepped out with him.
The first impact of the smoke settled him down a little bit and allowed him to think a little. He stepped back another couple of paces, to where he could look at the top of Rocinante’s wing. There was a little dimple where the piece of wood had gone through the wing like a dud anti-aircraft round. Looking carefully, he could see no more holes in this wing, but even from far away, he could see where there was another hole far out toward the tip of the other wing. It didn’t look as big, but still he went over to look at it. "Damn," he said. "Looks like this one went right through the wing, too, but didn’t hit anything inside."
Carefully, he walked around Rocinante, looking the plane over. Almost miraculously, the two holes – four actually, counting the entry and exit holes as separate ones – were all the damage he found, although he knew he would want to be very careful about going over the plane before they flew again, after the holes were fixed.
Delayed reaction to the storm was starting to set in on Jackie, now, and Mark still had it pretty bad. He reached in his pocket, shook out another cigarette and lit it. "Can I have one?" Jackie said.
"I didn’t know you smoked," Mark said.
"I had a cigarette with Kirsten, once," Jackie said. "But right now, I can’t think of anything better."
"Sure," Mark said, handing her the pack and offering her a light.
Though the cigarette didn’t have quite the same effect on Jackie that it had on Mark, it gave her something to do with her hands, something to think about besides the rain of debris that had fallen around them only minutes before. "Are we going to be able to fly this thing out of here?" she asked.
"If we absolutely had to, I suppose we could risk it," Mark said, exhaling a cloud of smoke and explaining, "We could tape over the hole out on the wingtip with no problem. I think we might be able to tape up the other one well enough to get someplace else if we had to. But we might as well fix it here. It’s nothing we can’t fix if Dad can mail me some of the stuff left over from re-covering them this spring. Besides, we’re going to be stuck here for a while, anyway."
"What do you mean?" Jackie asked.
Mark said nothing; he just cocked his head out toward the airstrip.
Jackie looked out where Mark was nodding.
Half of the airstrip looked all right; there was some scattered debris. The other half was a lot worse: toward the end, there was some downed timber, but there was scattered lumber and bits and pieces of trees and brush lying almost solidly across the runway. In the middle of the runway, broken and fanned out, lay what was left of a wooden roof; shingles were scattered all over the place.
"My God," Jackie said finally.
Mark nodded. "Someone’s going to have to put in a lot of work to clear a path through that crap so we can take off, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that someone’s going to have to be you and me."