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Bollworm Warrior

Story ID:3608
Written by:James Baker (bio, contact, other stories)
Organization:Writers' Circle
Story type:Story
Location:Tempe Arizona USA
Year:1949
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Tops of cotton plants lost focus as they charged beneath the biplane.

Max leaned forward against the shoulder harness to let air circulate behind his sweaty back. Fatigue from a long day made it difficult to concentrate. He thought of how refreshing to go home and immerse his hot body in a tub of cold water. In the darkness he could put the tub in the middle of the back yard, uncap a beer and soak up the stars above.

At the end of the field he applied backpressure to the control stick and watched the row of tamarisk trees slide beneath his lower wing. Clear of the top limbs he rolled into a question-mark shaped turnaround. The pull-up left a feeling of fullness in his bladder. He should avoid that second cup of coffee before flying.

Not yet full dark, deepening shadows made objects below hard to see. The ground temperature still hung a couple of degrees above the one hundred mark. Max figured on one more pass before heading for the hangar.

He switched on navigation lights and scanned the instrument panel as he eased the Stearman out of the turn and throttled down. The cylinder head temperature needle stood only a pointer width from the red arc.

It reminded him of long flights across the English Channel into the heartland of Germany only six years before. He had found if he rubbed the glass dial with a handkerchief, he could draw the temperature needle back into the safe zone temporarily. Psychologically he had felt better, although he knew the danger of engine failure still remained.

Clear of the trees, he dropped the Pratt and Whitney powerplant below the horizon and began feeding in throttle. Just above the green foliage he eased back on the stick, leveled off and nudged the elevator trim.

The prop blast carried a sulfur and hot-oil smell back to the cockpit. A faint hint of fabric dope and aviation gasoline lingered in the air. The 450-horsepower engine swung the propeller with a rhythmic chant as it chopped its way through the air.

After a glance at the manifold pressure gauge he concentrated on maintaining the proper distance between his wheels and the tops of the cotton plants. Near the end of the field he shifted his attention to power lines spanning the turnrow. He eased the wheels closer to the foliage--shrinking from the strands he would underfly.

Reaching higher into the orange-tinged sky, the wires raced overhead. He started back with the stick, then a sharp jerk slowed the biplane--a pulsation shuddered through the airframe. The nose of the ship dipped. Instinctively he shoved the the levers in his left hand forward in one stroke, then his hand fell to the emergency dump handle. The plane vibrated but kept lumbering through the air.

He glanced over his shouder. Fence posts leaped from the ground and tumbled through the air. A thin strand arced from the fence line to the rear of the airplane--probably the tail wheel. In his peripheral vision a cloud of yellow grew and spread like horizontal whirlwinds--the insecticide he'd released from the belly of the crop duster.

Panic arose momentarily, quickly extinguished by the sheer force of concentration.

With several hundred yards of barbed wire trailing behind, the flying machine fought for every mile-per-hour of speed, every foot of altitude.

Max flew by instinct--instinct gained from years of experience. His muscles tensed, yet he willed them to relax, to give him the precise touch necessary to push the biplane to the limits of its ability--to stay in the air--to avoid a stall--to climb.

Eyes to the front his heart skipped, then seemed to freeze in mid beat. Beyond the screaming radial engine lay a farm labor camp--too close to avoid--dead ahead. He saw people step to the doors of their shanties, their eyes widened and their mouths formed unheard sounds, then like a predatory bird he was upon them.

The first of the board and batten shacks flew ten feet beneath the wing. Trailing wire tore into rooftops. Shingles sailed, boards bounced, galvanized sheet iron glided through the air. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a clothesline suddenly jerked into the dust and debris, a pair of coveralls cartwheeling through the air. To the side, beyond the path of destructionl, a man shook his fist at the staggering Stearman.

Shambles of the camp behind, Max turned his attention to the task ahead--to make it to the duster strip just across the highway. Headlanps of cars marked the road.

Still dragging the wire, altitude now nearing 20 feet, he saw electric lines blocking his path. He lowered the nose sacrificing altitude for speed, and gently banked away.

In the dim glow of post lights on the instrument panel, his eyes stopped at the cylinder head temperature dial. The needle stood well into the red zone. He quickly checked the oil pressure. Only at hot idle had he ever seen such a low reading. He couldn't expect the nine cylinders to keep pounding for long at full power. The turn and slip needle showed less than a three-minute turn. He didn't dare steepen the bank. The vertical speed indicator gave little reassurance. He had to get on the ground--and soon.

A farmhouse and cattle pens dictated another slight course change, taking him farther afield.

When the fuselage again pointed toward the highway he rolled the wings level and raised the top of the cowling farther into the sky.

His right eye began stinging--a salty, burning sensation. He reached with his left hand and raised the bottom of his goggles. Cool droplets of sweat streamed back and ran beneath his leather helmet. He blinked rapidly to clear his vision.

Now the engine--was it imagination or did he hear a different tone? A slight pecking sound. He strained to listen above the rushing air.

Too busy to check instruments he peered ahead, trying to judge the height of wires along the highway. In the dusk he could see the tops of the power poles. They appeared to be sinking--he had enough height to clear them.

Barely past the highway, the Stearman settled slightly--a sharp tug when the trailing wire charged into the copper lines. Sixty-nine thousand volts arced into the evening sky. The electrical display reflected a harsh white light into the cockpit from beneath the upper wing.

A quarter mile ahead the landing strip appeared--a pale streak sandwiched between darker fields. All he had to do was make it over the canal at the approach end.

His pulse slowed as he banked into a shallow turn to line up with the runway. Easing pressure on the elevator, he inched the throttle back slightly. The silver and yellow bird sank into the darkness. The evening star rose in the sky as the nose of the airplane lowered.

Max leaned to the side to see beyond the cowling. The biplane slowed and began to sink. He started the throttle forward. An explosion shook the ship. A ball of fire flew past the lower wing, a spray of hot oil stung his face and streaked his goggles. Only silence came from the engine, the propeller stilled. Wind whistled through the wires and fluttered past the open cockpit.

He rammed the stick forward in a desperate attempt to keep flying speed. Simultaneously he brought back the levers at his left hand--no time for other emergency procedures.

Ahead the light patch of ground rose rapidly. Heart hammering against his sternum, he searched the shadows for the irrigation canal.

Instinctively he pulled the control stick toward his gut. The nose of the airplane rose slowly--sounds changed pitch. He would never make it.

The wings wobbled, then the bottom fell out. Max drew in a quick breath and grunted as the machine slammed into the earth. Cotton plants drummed against taut wing fabric as the Stearman stormed through the field. Stick full aft, he rocked his toes on the brakes. The tail rose momentarily as the plane skidded in a shallow arc and jolted to a stop.

Max sat for a moment in stunned silence. He took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, then peeled the helmet from his head. Wet beads popped out on his forehead, trickled through his eye sockets and ran past his nose. He blew away salty droplets seeping into the corners of his mouth. Rivulets of moisture dribbled down his spine. He pulled wads of cotton out of his ears.

The sound of barking dogs drifted from afar. Gasoline fumes and the odor of hot oil wafted on the air. Small tinkling sounds floated from the front of the plane. A faint burbling noise rose from the darkness.

He lifted the seatbelt catch and shrugged out of the shoulder harness. After a moment he stepped onto the wing then gently lowered himself to the ground.

A bright star pulsed in a shimering reflection from the canal, ten feet away. He held onto the side of the cockpit as a wave of weakness flowed over him. A warm sensation flooded his crotch and ran down his leg.

When the first police car arrived the officers found Max neck deep in the canal, still searching for the North Star.