Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
Part ThreeThe Prodigal Children
It was a particularly nice morning when they packed up their tent and their gear and loaded it into Rocinante, even before Fred arrived in the morning. When his old brown Chevy pickup pulled in the front gate that morning, Mark and Jackie and Rocinante were gone, on to other adventures, he was sure. "Well, Cumulus," he said to the bedraggled old dog that came out to greet him, "Our friends have left us, yes?"
In the last days that Mark and Jackie spent at Waverly West, most of the remaining barriers between them came down. Fred had seen the change, but had not quite been able to put his finger on what had happened; theyíd been a close-knit couple when theyíd arrived, but somewhere along the way, theyíd become even closer. Possibly the crash had something to do with it, he guessed, but he wasnít sure his guess was right. Not that it would matter at all, but heíd probably never know.
The air was still lying flat and still as Mark and Jackie detoured far to the east of Denver to avoid the smog and the busy skies there. They could only tell that the mountains were there by seeing their tops, still white with snow, far off in the distance beyond Rocinanteís right wingtip. Below them, a nearly featureless prairie spread wide; there wasnít much around in the semi-desert, except for the occasional farm or ranch, the occasional fence row or windmill. Mark let Jackie fly the plane, while he sat back in the left seat to reflect on some of the things heíd learned in their two weeks among the glider pilots. No longer would he think of a bump as a bump, of rough air as rough air. It was now lift or sink; the air mass was alive, and could be used by someone whoíd learned how to use it. Mark didnít know when or where he would get the chance again, but sometime again he would fly a sailplane.
South of Denver and Colorado Springs, Mark gave Jackie a new course to follow, one that would take them to Canon City and a gas pump. As always, it was too loud in Rocinanteís cockpit for much serious discussion beyond an occasional, "Oh, wow, look at that!" or a suggestion to approve her piloting, or other such comments of deep nature. Mark did have his arm around Jackie much of the way, and a couple of times, he told her that he loved her.
It had taken little discussion in the tent the night before to make up their minds to leave Waverly. It seemed like a good time to get off by themselves, to explore the new worlds they had found in each other. Backpacking in the Colorado high country seemed like a good way to get away from people, and Jack had told them about Leadville, right in the heart of the highest of the high country. "The airport is up there pretty good," heíd said as they sat out a storm in the line shack, "But you can get there without crossing any high passes by flying up the Arkansas River Valley." It had seemed like a pretty good idea.
Rocinante took her own sweet time getting off the runway at Canon City, making Mark wonder in the back of his mind if going up to Leadville was such a good idea after all. After all the time heíd spent in the much-more-powerful Golf Echo the past couple of weeks, perhaps heíd forgotten how the little Cessna flew at elevation. After all, the sectional chart around there was the brownest he had ever seen one, brown indicating high altitude. The airport elevation for Leadville was 9927 feet, just short of ten thousand, but Jack had told them the airport had a long runway and clear approaches. Still, Mark had rarely flown an airplane as high above sea level as Leadvilleís airport elevation, so the prospect of landing there seemed a bit exciting.
The valley seemed very narrow below them as they followed the river and the railroad beneath them. Miles to the west, the valley turned to the north and broadened out. Mark was flying now, keeping Rocinante in a gentle climb, and working patches of lift as they rose from the warmed sunward slope. Rocinanteís altimeter slowly but steadily wound up until it was nearing 11,000 feet. "How about that," he told Jackie. "Thatís the highest Iíve ever flown a plane, and the peaks are still way above us."
The valley narrowed beneath them a bit, then broadened out into a more open area, perhaps a thousand feet below them. They finally spotted the airport on the side of a mountain off to their right. The town was on the far side of the airport, and above it.
Mark flew over the airport to get a look at the wind sock, which was hanging limp. The airportís approaches were wide open, although it didnít seem like a good idea to fly a pattern from the town side. "Looks like the place," Jackie said.
Mark swung around to land on the wide, paved runway. He let Rocinante roll down to the taxiway turnoff, by a small hangar. He taxied up onto the ramp and noticed that the hangar doors were open; inside, a couple of men were working on an old green-and-white Cessna 182.
"Might as well get some gas," Mark said, taxiing up to the gas pumps and stopping.
He and Jackie opened the Cessnaís doors and got out. The air seemed chilly, especially after the warm days at Waverly and the hot ones in Texas and the south. The chill air felt good, more like home, but was enough for them to want jackets. Jackie dug theirs out of the luggage compartment and handed Mark his.
"Can I help you?" one of the men from the hangar said. He was tall and gaunt, fifty or so; his skin looked like he had spent years out in the open.
"Got eighty octane?" Mark asked.
"Got it if you want it," the man said. "But you guys are flatlanders, right? Ever been here before?"
"First time," Jackie told him. "Itís really pretty."
"Then just a word to the wise," he said. "When you get set to leave here, you donít want any more weight than you have to carry, especially with a little airplane like that." He pointed at the airport door, where there was a sign that read, "ELEV 9927".
Now the other man joined them, still wiping oil from his hands. He was short and a little heavy-set, and kind of reminded Jackie of her father. "This is the nationís highest airport," he told them. "Thereís only one paved runway in the world thatís any higher, and itís only a little bit higher."
Mark started to get a sinking feeling, like he might have made a mistake. "It handled pretty good getting up here," he told the two men.
"But it climbed like a sick dog, right?" the taller man asked.
"Iíve seen it do better," Mark admitted.
"You gotta remember, up this high, a little C-85 like this engine is only putting out about fifty horsepower," the man who looked like Jackieís dad said. "Plus, your true air speed is higher than your indicated, so youíve got more speed you have to pick up."
"Youíve got a mile of runway here," Mark said. "At home, I can get this thing off in 800 feet if everythingís right. A mile ought to be plenty, I thought."
"Might not be," the tall man said. "You got much gas in there now?"
"An hour, maybe an hour and a half," Mark told him.
"I wouldnít put any in, if I were you," the shorter man said. "Fly right straight down to Salida and gas up there. Theyíre half a mile lower, and theyíve got a longer runway."
"Well, all right," Mark said. "I wonít put any gas in. But, we came up here to go hiking, so we might as well go hiking before we try to take off. Thanks for the advice."
"Welcome to Leadville," the shorter man said, putting out his hand. Shorter was relative; he was still a big man. "The nameís Duke. This is my buddy, John. You two arenít the first flatlanders to fly into Leadville and wonder if theyíre going to be able to fly out."
Mark introduced Jackie and himself, then asked, "Duke, has anybody ever had to have a plane leave on a flatbed?"
"Naw," he said, "But we got a gal in the flying club that weighs about eighty-five pounds wringing wet. Sometimes sheís had to fly peopleís planes out of here for them, while we take the people and their stuff down to Salida in Dirty Thirty, there," he said, pointing at the Cessna in the hangar.
"You got any idea where we could go hiking?" Mark asked.
"Well, gee, I donít know," John said. "Itís still pretty cold up on the peaks; thereís a lot of snow left up there." He pointed across the valley at a huge rock wall. "Along in the summer, a lot of people like to hike from Hagerman Pass up across Mount Massive and Mount Elbert. Awful pretty up there. Iíve never hiked up there, but Iíve flown the ridge, and itís a nice view. You guys do much mountain hiking?"
"Never done any," Jackie admitted. "But weíre northerners, weíre used to cold."
"Itís still winter up here," Duke told them. "We just had snow last week, lots of it left, maybe more than you want to try to hike in."
"Yeah," John said. "Summer here doesnít last long. Six weeks, two months at the most between snows. Besides, thatís awful high to be hiking if you arenít used to it. And, Iím not sure thereís enough snow off to let you really do any hiking."
"John, how about Mosquito Pass and the old mine?" Duke asked. "Itís not quite as high, and itís a heck of a lot easier to get down from if the cold or the altitude is too much."
"Donít know if the jeep trailís open yet," John said, then turned to Mark and Jackie. "What Duke is saying is that thereís this old stagecoach road up the side of the ridge east of town. You get up on the other side of the ridge and down a ways, and thereís these little ponds. Itís awful pretty in August, but theyíre probably still frozen over."
"Aw, hell," Duke said. "Letís finish the oil change, then take these kids and go see. Iíve been thinking about doing some trout fishing anyway, and they bite real good right after the ice is off. We needed an excuse to go flying, anyway."
Half an hour later, Mark and Jackie were in the cramped back seat of the Cessna 182 that Duke had called "Dirty Thirty." It wasnít dirty, and in fact, was rather clean, but it showed signs of use. John taxied the plane out to the end of the runway, running the engine up on the way, then turned around and ran the throttle up.
It had been several years since Mark had flown in a Cessna 182, but he remembered it as a powerful airplane. Although the engine roared, it seemed as if their speed built up rather slowly. They were still far below flying speed when they passed the taxiway. "Come on, bitch," John muttered, and eased back on the wheel to lift the nose of the tri-geared airplane. Much farther down the runway than Mark would have expected, the wheels rather reluctantly broke ground.
"A little heavy, today," Duke said. "We usually donít fly this thing with four people, but we donít have much gas."
John turned the Cessna across the valley and found some rising air along the sunward slope. It still took several minutes to climb as high as the ridge top. Duke took the wheel and flew around the north side of the mountain they had called "Mount Massive." Nope, still all frozen in," he told John and Mark and Jackie. "Catch them right after they thaw out, and the fishingís pretty good. Theyíre hungry after being cold all winter."
The airplane turned south, to follow the ridge along the top of Mount Massive and the mountain to the south. "Awful lot of snow out there," John said. "Slip and fall and you wouldnít stop sliding until you got down to the river." Mark and Jackie looked out the window at the ridge top; while there was bare rock in spots, there was a lot of snow. They glanced at each other, and shook their heads.
"Letís have a look at Mosquito Pass," Duke said. John turned east and headed over town. On the far side of the little village was another rock wall, but through the shine of the propellerís disk Mark could see the faint trace of a road zigzagging up the ridge. John had a lot of altitude as they approached the ridge, but as they got nearer, there was a lot of sink and the rocks rose toward them alarmingly.
John took the ridge in a way that Mark had always heard about, but had never had to do; he approached it at an angle, so that if the sink got too bad, they could turn away. Only when he was very close to the ridge did John turn towards it and race through the sink. The top of the ridge shot past them, quite closely, but Mark could not see any trace of the old stagecoach trail. "The snowís still ass deep," John said.
They were over a little valley that opened out to the east. John circled the 182 in the rising air; below them, they could see the old mine he had talked about, and the ponds. These had big patches of ice floating around in the center, but were clearly melting out. "Any day, now," Duke said. "But, with the road still snowed up, youíd have to come up the Fairplay side, and thatís a hundred-mile drive."
He built up a little more altitude and headed north. "Hereís something thatís kind of neat," Duke explained, turning around in the seat to look at them. "The Glory Hole. For half a century, theyíve been tearing this mountain down. Itís a molybdenum mine, and thereís not a lot of mountain left." Duke told them he was a railroad engineer, and his job was to haul concentrate down from the mine to the switchyard.
They looked down; Jackie had to lean over Mark to see out the side, clear down to the bottom of the pit. It was a huge hole.
On the way back to the airport, Jackie put her mouth close to Markís ear and whispered, "I donít know about you, but Iíve got things Iíd rather do than be alone in a sleeping bag, freezing my butt."
Mark took her by the hand and squeezed a reply.
Back at the airport, they helped John and Duke roll the 182 back into the hangar. "I donít know," Mark said, "But I think hiking in the high country is still just a bit too cold for my taste."
"Thereís places lower down that are just about as nice. Thereís a little valley over the other side of Granite thatís no higher than this, and itís the prettiest place in the spring. Wouldnít be a great place for a long hike, but Iíve often thought it would make a great place to go and camp for a few days."
"How far away is that?" Mark asked.
"Oh, maybe twenty miles," John said.
"Thatís a lot of walking on the road," Mark said.
"Too bad you didnít get here a month later," Duke said. "Along about the end of July, first of August, is the best time to get back up on the ridges."
"Too bad," Mark agreed. "Thereís some awful pretty country around here, I can see that. Iíd love to explore some of it, but I think itís too darn cold. I suppose Jackie and I ought to get something to eat and then see if we can get out of here."
Duke looked at his watch. "Well, I can run you into town, but Iíve got to make a run up to the Glory Hole this afternoon. Work calls."
"Yeah," John said. "Iíve got some work to get done, too. You kids take it easy."
They stood and talked for a few minutes more, then John got in his car and left. Mark and Jackie got into Dukeís pickup with him and rode into town; it was only a mile or two. The town was interesting; a mining town, but with the mines more or less played out, except for the Glory Hole, Duke told them. It was shabby and rundown. The main street wasnít bad, but up the side streets Mark and Jackie could see a lot of shacks; it was obvious the place had seen better days.
"Nice meeting you," Duke said when he let them out of the pickup. "If you want a haul down to Salida, our numbers are there on the hangar. You might want to figure on just staying over here in town tonight, and then trying to take off at first light tomorrow, when itís cooler."
Alone at last, Mark and Jackie found a restaurant called "The Golden Burro". They found seats, and a waitress brought them menus.
"Well, it was a nice idea, anyway," Mark said, "But letís face it; itís still too damn cold to go spend a week in the high country. You got any ideas?"
"We could head for Yellowstone again," Jackie said. "It seems to me thatís what we were doing when we stopped at Waverly."
"Based on what weíve seen today, Iím not so sure that Iím all that crazy about Yellowstone right now, either. Itís not a hell of a lot lower than we are now, and itís farther north."
"Well, maybe this is the time to go see the Grand Canyon," Jackie said, "But I hate to give up the idea of our hiking trip up in the mountains."
"So do I," Mark said. "Letís see if we can find some lower mountains farther south, where it ought to be warmer. Weíve got to go south a little, anyway, to get gas, so we could fly south to someplace down in New Mexico like Sante Fe or Taos, and see if the weatherís a little better. I donít mind going south; we can do Yellowstone and the Wind Rivers in a month or so. I kind of wanted to visit Kitt Peak and a couple places like that, anyway."
"Whatís Kitt Peak?" Jackie wondered.
"Oh, a big observatory. Itís one of those places Iíve read about in Sky and Telescope and other magazines, and Iíve just wanted to see it."
They ate lunch and wandered around the town a bit. Not far from the restaurant was the local historical museum. They spent a half hour there, learning that a hundred years before the town had been a wild and rowdy mining camp, with fortunes won and lost on the turn of a card or the choice of where to push a spade into the ground. It had to have been an interesting place back then, Mark thought.
Eventually, they finished up with the museum. "I suppose we had better hike back out to the airport and see if we can get down to Salida and get gas before they close," he said. "If we can get out of there early enough, we might be able to get a good flight to the south yet tonight."
It was only a couple of miles back out to the airport, and downhill at that, but they were surprised at how hard they were breathing, just walking fairly slowly alongside the road. "Iím sure glad we didnít decide to go hiking in the high country," Jackie puffed as they stopped for a minute. "If the air is this thin here in town, what must it be like over on the top of that ridge?" she said, pointing at Mount Massive, hulking over them on the horizon.
Mark shook his head. "People who live up here, like John and Duke, have to be so used to it that itís no big deal to them. But, I tell you what Ė itís a big deal to me."
"It sure was nice of Duke and John to take us up behind the ridges," she said. "It would be fun to hike up there, maybe in a month or so."
"It sure would be," he said. "Maybe someday."
They walked on out to the airport. Along the way, Mark noticed a white rag laying alongside the road, and on the way into the airport, a stick about three feet long; he picked both of them up and brought them along. Jackie wondered what he wanted them for, but he didnít say.
She still wondered when they got to the airport, which was now deserted in the middle of the afternoon. Mark took the rag and stick and went out to walk down the runway to the north. The wind was dead calm, and although it was still cool, about fifty degrees, the altitude had her puffing so much that she sat down next to Rocinante on the ramp and waited for Mark to return.
He came back about fifteen minutes later without the rag and stick. Her curiosity would hold no longer. "What was that all about?" she asked.
"Maybe Duke and John got me a little scared," Mark said. "Or maybe the takeoff in the 182 did, but I put a marker a thousand feet from the end of the runway, so Iíd be sure I have room to stop if we canít get off the ground before that."
"Oh," Jackie said in a small voice. She was beginning to realize that Mark was more worried about the takeoff from Leadville than he had let on; perhaps that was why he had been so quiet all afternoon.
It was no great trick to get into Rocinante; they hadnít unpacked, except for their jackets.
The engine started right off, and Mark taxied out to the end of the runway Ė a little beyond the end, in fact; there was a flat gravel area about a hundred feet long, and he realized heíd better use all he could. He turned to face the little Cessna towards the far end of the runway, which seemed a lot closer than it had when they landed, only a few hours before. He sat there looking for a minute, then turned and looked at Jackie. "Are you ready?"
"I guess so," she said quietly.
"Jackie, I love you," he said, taking her hand for a moment and squeezing it tight with a message that was louder than anything he could say. If something went wrong, it might be his last words.
"I love you, too," she said. "Letís do it."
Mark let down ten degrees of flaps, then locked the brakes, and ran the engine up to where the brakes wouldnít hold any longer. It was ridiculous, he thought, a short-field takeoff on a mile of runway, but there it was, and that was what he was facing.
The little Cessna gathered speed slowly; Mark was amazed at how sluggish it was. They were a long way down the runway before he had enough speed to get the tail up, to where the prop would work more efficiently. Jackie wished she had something to hold on to, to make her feel less nervous. With her limited flying experience, even she could tell that things were not going right.
With the tail up, Rocinante gained speed a little more quickly. From looking out the window, Mark thought that their speed was about acceptable, but both the feel of the wheel in his hands and the airspeed indicator on the panel told him that things werenít going well at all. Not far ahead of him, he could see the stick that he had leaned up against a runway light, rag hanging limp in the still air, getting closer and closer. He stole one more disappointing look at the airspeed indicator, just to reassure himself that his fingers werenít lying to him, then yanked the throttle back, stood on the brakes, and held back on the wheel to keep the little Cessna from nosing over.
Where their speed had seemed agonizingly slow only a moment before, now the far end of the runway was rushing toward them. Rocinante shuddered under the heavy braking pressure from Markís feet, and Jackie balled her fists even tighter as the plane slowed. Helplessly, Jackie thought of her father, and how he must feel when he saw someone run a crossing in front of his train, knowing it would take him a mile or more to stop . . .
By the time the plane had slowed enough, they were at the bitter end of the runway, and there wasnít room enough between the runway lights to turn around. He had to taxi out into the gravel beyond the lights in order to get Rocinante heading back the other way.
"Not a chance," he said, breathing again. "We needed another ten knots at least, maybe fifteen to be sure. Iíll be damned if John and Duke didnít know what they were talking about."
"I wasnít sure you were going to get it stopped," Jackie said. "It seemed like we were going fast enough, from looking out the window, but even I could feel that we werenít."
"We were going more than fast enough, at a lower altitude," Mark said, "But the indicated airspeed is what tells you if we were going fast enough, and we just didnít have enough in this thin air." He braked for the taxiway, and turned back toward the ramp.
"Well, what do we do now?" Jackie said.
"I donít know," Mark said. "I guess maybe we call Duke or John tonight, and tomorrow we can have one of them fly you and the gear down to Salida. If I canít get this thing off without you or the gear, maybe . . . well, this eighty-five-pound gal they know isnít going to make much difference, I donít think.
"Iím twenty pounds lighter than you are," Jackie said. "Maybe I could try it."
"Thanks for the offer," he told her. "But twenty pounds isnít going to make that much difference either. Besides, youíre still learning what your limits are, and I can push those limits closer than a twenty-pound difference would account for."
They tied Rocinante back down to the cables on the ramp, then went up to the pay phone to call Duke. "Heís not home," his wife told him. "Heís up the hill and wonít be back till after dark."
"Try John," Jackie suggested, but the phone at Johnís house just rang and rang.
"It looks like weíre stuck here for the evening," Mark said. "We might as well get the tent set up."
Jackie shook her head. "At least Iím glad we didnít ship the long handles back home. Cold as it is, weíre going to need them tonight."
They managed to find a place to camp up in the pines behind the hangar. The ground was soft enough there to get stakes in, and the outhouse was only a few steps away. The sun sank slowly in the northwest, but slid behind Mount Massive early; still, on this high summer evening, twilight was long. They got out their cooking gear and opened some cans for supper, then sat, drank coffee, and agreed that however much theyíd like to slip into the tent and make love, it was too cold to be rolling around in bare skin on the sleeping bags. "Weíll be someplace warmer tomorrow night," Mark promised, "Even if itís a motel here in Leadville."
They never did get an answer at Johnís, and the light was failing when Duke answered the phone. Mark explained what had happened.
"Look, try it first thing in the morning, at first light," Duke told Mark. "Youíll get a little bit better break on the density altitude."
"Duke," Mark protested, "The airspeed was so low I donít think a few degrees is going to do much good."
"All right," the older man said, "Try it anyway. Iíll come out about eight. If youíre gone, great. If not, well, then weíll do what we have to do."
With the sun setting late, the night wasnít that long, but it was cold. They had not spent such a cold night since that night in Kentucky months before, the first night that they camped together, the night Jackie had lain awake for hours in her sleeping bag, half in fear that Mark would come to her. Now, when she wished Mark would come to her, she knew that if he did, it was too cold to enjoy it, and she lay awake in frustration. How much things had changed in the two and a half months they had been together! Could it have been that short a time? It seemed like they had been gone much longer than that, and here, on an early summerís night, they had caught back up with the winter they had raced south to avoid.
Probably it was the coffee, as much as the frustration and the worry about the next day that kept Jackie awake. It was long after dark before she fell into a fitful sleep.
It was certainly the coffee that woke her up not too many hours later. She lay shivering in her sleeping bag in sheer pain from her aching bladder, listening to the whisper of the breeze in the pines, before she finally pulled enough courage together to unzip the sleeping bag, take her flashlight, and slip out of the tent for the short walk to the outhouse.
There was the merest sliver of twilight to the northeast, but she paid it little attention as she stumbled to the little building. The seat was so cold that she could barely stand to sit on it for the few seconds it took her to relieve the pressure, praying that her butt wouldnít get frozen to the seat.
Feeling much better, she pulled her long johns back up and went back outside. It was almost bright enough to see without the flashlight, and was so chilly that she longed to get back into her sleeping bag. It would be warmer, if not warm. The smell of the pines and the whisper of the breeze through the needles made her think of home . . .
"Mark!" she yelled.
He came awake with a start. What could be wrong now? "What is it?" he yelled back, still half-asleep.
"Thereís a breeze blowing! A good ten or fifteen knots, if Iím seeing the windsock right!"
"What direction?" he asked, still not fully comprehending Jackieís discovery.
"Right down the runway!"
* * *
They tore the tent down in record time, stuffed their sleeping bags the best they could in the half-light and the light from their flashlights, and cursed again at how long it took them to get the air out of the air mattresses. Usually, they were pretty careful about how they packed Rocinanteís luggage compartment, but this time they just stuffed things in as best as they could; luggage was stuffed to the ceiling before they were through. They could not have made it at all if they werenít still wearing their long underwear. Mark did the walkaround with a flashlight in hand, since it was still only barely light enough to see anything at all. He took a long look at the windshield and the wings, and noticed that no frost had formed on them.
Rocinante started right off, and Mark began to slowly taxi out to the end of the runway, hoping the engine would warm up enough if they took their time, and that the breeze would hold out, only a few minutes more. It was just barely light enough to see down into the valley, and see where the mountains were.
"Iím not sure Iím going to be able to see the marker," Mark told his lover. "You keep an eye out for it, tell me when weíre coming up on it, tell me when we pass it. Yell it out, I want to make sure I hear you."
"I will if I can see it," Jackie told him.
Again, he pulled out into the gravel to swing the little Cessna around. "Be a good girl, Rocinante," he said. "This is the best chance weíre going to get." He took a final look at the windsock up at the hangar far down the runway; it still indicated a steady breeze. The gauges on the panel looked good. He turned to Jackie, smiled, and said, "Sancho, my armor!"
Mark lowered the flaps and shoved the throttle forward, giving Rocinante the spurs.
Looking out the window, to Jackie it seemed that the little Cessna was gaining speed even slower than the afternoon before, but into the teeth of the chilly breeze, it wasnít surprising. Still, even she could feel that the airplane was more lively; Mark had the tail up in half the distance of the last attempt to take off.
The speed built slowly, agonizingly slowly. When they passed the taxiway at the midpoint of the field, it still seemed to Jackie that she could run faster than Rocinante was going. She began to look off to the left, across in front of Mark for the rag marker he had put out the day before, and the end of the runway was rushing toward them before she saw it. "There it is," she yelled. "A hundred yards!"
"Got it," Mark yelled. "Come on, Rocinante."
It didnít seem to Jackie that they could be going fast enough, but Mark had a better view of the airspeed indicator . . . maybe, just maybe . . .
"Passing the marker," Jackie yelled.
Mark kept the throttle on. They were committed, now; he knew, after yesterdayís experience, that there could be no stopping. Either they were going to fly or there were going to be a ball of aluminum, fabric, and flesh on the highway down below the end of the airport . . . but the airspeed indicator still seemed to be saying "maybe," and he could feel Rocinante start to come alive in his hands. He eased back on the wheel a little, and the plane gave a little hop. Not quite yet . . .
The end of the runway rushed down on them, and Mark held the Cessna down as long as he dared, thanking God or John and Duke or whoever had the good sense to give the airport wide-open approaches, so there would be no trees or power lines to clear. They were almost up to the runway numbers before he tried to lift Rocinante off again.
Looking out her window, Jackie could see them flash between the runway lights, but the wheels were off the ground over the gravel overrun.
The ground fell away beyond the end of the runway; not a lot, perhaps a couple of hundred feet, but it was enough that Mark could let the nose down a little to gain something resembling a comfortable airspeed. He couldnít keep going straight forever, and didnít have enough airspeed for much of a turn, but banked slightly to the west and the lower ground beyond, where with the nose down he might be able to gain a little more airspeed.
Somewhere not too far below them, a car ground up the hill with its lights still on in the morning twilight, but the needle on the airspeed indicator was still climbing enough to where Mark could sit back in his seat. It wasnít until then he realized he had been leaning forward, tense, trying to lift Rocinante into the air on sheer will. A scene flashed through his mind, from the movie, The Spirit of St. Louis, where Lindberghís wheels brushed the tops of the trees at the far end of that runway so long ago. Now, he knew how Lindbergh must have felt . . .
Next to him, Jackie realized that she was breathing again. "I didnít think we were going to make it," she heard him say as he leveled the wings and set course for Salida, to the south.
"Why didnít you stop when we passed the marker?" she said. "I didnít think we were going to make it, either."
Mark let out a deep breath, still not quite believing what had happened. "Rocinante was telling me she thought she could."
* * *
June 15, 1971
Dear Dad and Sarah:
Just a quick note this time. Iím writing this sitting on the steps of the airport office, waiting for them to open, so we can get some gas. From here, weíre going to head on south for a ways.
We stopped in Leadville, but decided not to go hiking up in the high country, after all. Itís still pretty cold up there; the mountains are still snowcapped, and here it is the end of June. Itís awful pretty up there; maybe weíll get to go back up in a month or six weeks, when itís warmer. We flew over some places that look like theyíd be a lot of fun to fish in.
While we were in Leadville, we met a Burlington railroad engineer who reminds me a lot of you, Dad Ė except that heís a real homeguard, but what a run he has Ė from 9500 feet elevation to 11,000, in twelve miles. I didnít ask, but I bet he knows a lot about braking.
Here comes the airport manager to unlock this place, so Iím going to wrap this up. We want to get going before it gets too warm. I donít know when Iíll call again, but Iíll write in a few days.
I love you,