“Who are you?’
“Neil Mallory,” I said. “Iquitos for Belem by way of Manaus.”
“Jesus.” He laughed harshly. “I thought it was Lindberg they called the flying fool. Manaus is just on a hundred miles down-river from here. Can you stay afloat that long?”
Another hour at least.I checked the fuel gauge and air-speed indicator and faced the inevitable. “Not a chance. Speed’s fall-ing all the time and my tank’s nearly dry.”
“No use jumping for it in this kind of country,” he said. “You’d never be seen again. Can you hold her together for another ten minutes?”
“I can try.”
“There’s a patch ofcampo ten or fifteen miles downstream. Give you a chance to land that thing if you’re good enough.”
I didn’t reply because the fuselage actually started to tear away in a great strip from the port wing and the wing, as if in pain, moved up and down more frantically than ever.
I was about a thousand feet up as we reached the Negro and turned downstream, drifting gradually and inevitably towards the ground like a falling leaf. There was sweat on my face in spite of the wind rushing in through the holes in the fuselage and my hands were cramped tight on the stick for it was taking all my strength to hold her.
“Easy, kid, easy.” That strange, harsh voice crackled through the static. “Not long now. A mile downstream on your left. I’d tell you to start losing height only you’re falling like a stone as it is.”
“I love you too,” I said and clamped my teeth hard together and held on as the Vega lurched violently to starboard.
The campoblossomed in the jungle a quarter of a mile in front of me, a couple of hundred yards of grassland beside the river. The wind seemed to be in the right direction although in the stare the Vega was in, there wasn’t much I could have done about it if it hadn’t been. I hardly needed to throttle back to reduce airspeed for my approach – the engine had almost stopped anyway – but I got the tail trimmer adjusted and dropped the flaps as I floated in across the tree-tops.
It took all my strength to hold her, stamping on the rudder to pull her back in line as she veered to starboard. It almost worked. I plunged down, with a final burst of power to level out for my landing and the engine chose that precise moment to die on me.
It was like running slap into an invisible wall. The Vega seemed to hang there in the air a hundred feet above the ground for a moment, then swooped.
I left the undercarriage in the branches of the trees at the west end of thecampo. In fact I think, in the final analysis, that was what saved me for the braking effect on the plane as she barged through the top of the trees was considerable. She simply flopped down on her belly on thecampo and ploughed forward through the six-foot-high grass, leaving both wings behind her on the way and came to a dead halt perhaps twenty yards from the bank of the river.
I unstrapped my seat belt, kicked open the door, threw out the mail bags and followed them through, just in case. But there was no need and the fact that she hadn’t gone up like a torch on impact wasn’t luck. It was simply that there wasn’t anything left in the tanks to burn.
I sat down very carefully on one of the mail sacks. My hands were trembling slightly – not much, but enough – and my heart was pounding like a trip-hammer. The Hayley swooped low overhead. I waved without looking up, then unzipped my flying jacket and found a tin of Balkan Sobranie cigarettes, last of carton I’d bought on the black market in Lima the previous month. I don’t think anything in life to that moment had ever tasted as good.
After a while, I stood up and turned in time to see the Hayley bank and drop in over the trees on the far side of thecampo. He made it look easy and it was far from that, for the wreckage of the Vega and the position where its wings had come to rest in its wake left him very little margin for error. There couldn’t have been more than a dozen yards between the tip of his port wing and the edge of the trees.