“Have you flown her much?” I asked.
“Just over a hundred miles. She handled well. Didn’t give me any kind of trouble at all.”
The Bristol was a two-seater. I climbed up on the lower port wing and peered into the pilot’s cockpit. It had exactly the right kind of smell – a compound of leather, oil and petrol – some-thing that had never yet failed to excite me and I reached out to touch the stick in a kind of reluctant admiration. The only modern addition was a radio which must have been fitted when the new law made them mandatory in Brazil.
“It really must be an original. Basket seat and leather cushions. All the comforts of home.”
“They were a great plane,” Hannah said soberly.
I dropped to the ground. “Didn’t I read somewhere that van Richthofen shot down four in one day?”
“There were reasons for that. The pilot had a fixed machine-gun up front – a Vickers. The observer usually carried one or two free-mounting Lewis guns in the rear. At first, they used the usual two-seater technique.”
“Which meant the man in the rear cockpit did all the shoot-ing?”
“Exactly, and that was no good. They sustained pretty heavy losses at first until pilots discovered she was so maneuverable you could fly her like a single-seater.”
“With the fixed machine-gun as the main weapon?”
“That’s right. The observer’s Lewis just became a useful extra. They used to carry a couple of bombs. Not much -around two hundred and forty pounds – but it means you can take a reasonable pay load. If you look, you’ll see the rear cock-pit has been extended at some time.”
I peered over. “You could get a couple of passengers in there now.”
“I suppose so, but it isn’t necessary. The Hayley can handle that end of things. Let’s get her outside.”
We took a wing each and pushed her out into the bright sunshine. In spite of her shabby appearance, she looked strangely menacing and exactly what she was supposed to be – a formidable fighting machine, waiting for something to happen.
“I’ve known people who love horses – any horse – with every fibre of their being, an instinctive response that simply cannot be denied. Aeroplanes have always affected me in exactly the same way and this was an aeroplane and a half in spite of her shabby appearance and comparatively slow speed by modern standards. There was something indefinable here that could not be stated. Of one tiling I was certain – it was me she was waiting for.”
Hannah said, “You can take the Hayley. I’ll follow on in this.”
I shook my head. “No, thanks. This is what you hired me to fly.”
He looked a little dubious. “You’re sure about that?”
I didn’t bother to reply, simply went and got my canvas grip and threw it into the rear cockpit. There was a parachute in there, but I didn’t bother to get it out, just pulled on my flying jacket, helmet and goggles.
He unfolded a map on the ground and we crouched beside it. The Rio das Mortes branched out of the Negro to the north-east about a hundred and fifty miles farther on. There was a military post called Forte Franco at its mouth and Landro was another fifty miles upstream.
“Stick to the river all the way,” Hannah said. “Don’t try cutting across the jungle whatever you do. Go down there and you’re finished. It’s Hum country all the way up the Mortes. They make those Indians you mentioned along the Xingu look like Sunday-school stuff and there’s nothing they like better than getting their hands on a white man.”
“Doesn’t anyone have any contacts with them?”
“Only the nuns at the medical mission at Santa Helena and it’s a miracle they’ve survived as long as they have. One of the mining companies was having some trouble with them the other year so they called the head men of the various sub-tribes together to talk things over, then machine-gunned them from cover. Killed a couple of dozen, but they botched things up and about eight got away. Since then it’s been war. It’s all martial law up there. Not that it means anything. The military aren’t up to much. A colonel and fifty men with two motor launches at Forte Franco and that’s it.”