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CHAPTER II ANOTHER HARD BLOW

After making this astonishing statement, Mr. Trowbridge walked hastily to the window and ran his fingers around his collar as if it was tight. For a moment Roberta stood in her tracks, her helmet shoved back off her forehead, her wavy hair falling in unruly twists, while her eyes stared at the man’s back so hard they finally forced him to turn around.

“Oh, I say, Miss Langwell—” he paused, then walked briskly to his desk, cleared his throat, opened and closed a drawer, and without looking at her again, spoke with an effort. “I’m sorry about this—” he got up again, “but, don’t take it so hard. You’ve got one of the best records of any pilot in the country, you own Nike, and you are sure to pick up something quickly.”

26 “I, I wasn’t thinking of that,” she managed to answer. It was her first position since she had been graduated from business school, so of course it was the first time she had lost one, and now it swept over her, like an on-rushing tide, that she was outside of the organization; she was no longer a part of the Lurtiss Airplane Company. She swallowed, bravely endeavoring to buck up or snap out of her depression, but it wasn’t easy.

“No, surely you weren’t. Sit down a moment and collect yourself. This financial mess is likely to adjust itself overnight, then the whole works will be booming again. It can’t be anything more than temporary, and in a few weeks you’ll be back again. You’ll be the first one recalled, for your service has been excellent, excellent.”

“Thank you so much, Mr. Trowbridge—”

“There’s a lot of pick-up work. Odds and ends; people hiring planes for trips and business purposes. With Nike you can find plenty to do. If I may make a suggestion, I’d say do some of that sort of thing temporarily—but—then,” he glanced at her and frowned. “You27 probably won’t want to see one of us again, ever—”

“I’ll be glad to come back whenever you have a place for me,” she told him hastily. Mr. Trowbridge was feeling so miserable that Roberta was sorry for him and tried to cheer him up.

“That’s great. Knew you were not the sore-head kind. You can understand how things will happen—”

“I guess I don’t very well, but I am sure you have all been most kind to me. I’d rather be dismissed because of reducing expenses than because I didn’t do my job well. Mr. Howe was in this morning. Did he say anything about the work he wanted done?”

“Well, er, he did mention it, but I believe he left for Washington and I don’t know when he’ll be back. He can get your address from us any time he wants it, or you could send him a note—”

“Guess I won’t do that, but I will leave the address, thank you.” She wrote it down for him and was glad to be able to do something for a moment. “If he wants me he can find me easily enough. You have been mighty28 kind—I’m wondering if—if it will seem—that is, I wish you would tell the others that I appreciate—I—somehow I don’t feel exactly like saying goodbye to them—”

“I’ll be glad to. They will understand.” Mr. Trowbridge answered so quickly that she was a little startled at his readiness, but that, too, passed out of her mind immediately.

“I’ll get Nike—”

“One of the boys will fix her up for you, and any time you want her given an overhauling, drop down here. She’ll be taken care of the same as usual; we’d feel neglected if you did not permit us to do that for you.” He tried to smile, but the effort was not much of a success.

“Thank you—” Quickly she faced about and hurried out of the office, closing the door after her much more softly than Mr. Wallace had done a few minutes before. She did not notice as she made her way to the big entrance, but before she got half way to the hangar, she met Phil.

“Oh, here you are, say” he stopped short. “What’s the matter, Roberta, you look as if you’d seen a ghost!”

29 “I’m all right,” she answered and blinked furiously.

“Where you going?” demanded Phil.

“Home.”

“Let me take you.” He swung in beside her.

“Thank you, I’m going alone—Oh, it’s all right, I mean I’m all right, but, well, Mr. Trowbridge just told me about the—”

“About the what?”

“He told me the firm has to let some of its pilots go, and I am one of them.” Phil stopped short, caught her arm and swung her around so that she faced him.

“What the heck are you talking about?” he demanded.

“I just lost my job and I guess I am making an awful boob of myself.” She forced her lips into a good imitation of a smile.

“I say, you are full of—quit kidding—”

“I am not kidding, Phil.”

“You mean to say Trowbridge just told you that you can’t work here any more,” he persisted.

“Yes I do,” she answered. “So long, Phil.”

“I say, wait a minute, while I look into30 this,” he called, but a plane was roaring onto the field and the noise of the motor drowned his voice so the girl did not hear. Her throat choked as she hurried to get away, and after staring at her a few minutes, young Fisher, his forehead puckered in a deep frown, strode toward the office, and met Trowbridge just coming out. “What’s the big idea?” he demanded.

“You mean about Miss Langwell?”

“Of course,” Phil snapped.

“Howe has some sort of idea that he wants to put into operation. He believes that it will help him capture a choice collection of bandits and he thinks some of them will make use of Miss Langwell, so she’s in the Government employ really, but she doesn’t know it.”

“It sounds blamed putrid to me,” Phil declared, and he started down the steps.

“Give it a trial, Phil, for it’s a whale of a thing,” the man urged. “We don’t any of us think much of the plan, but she promised to help him and probably his way is best.”

“Well—” Just then the familiar roar of Nike’s engine announced that their Girl Sky Pilot was on her way home, and if Roberta31 could have had an inkling of that conversation, it would have brightened the outlook of everything for weeks to come. But she was blissfully unconscious that she was playing a part, and life seemed to be of the deepest indigo.

It took Nike only a short time to get her young owner home and to her own new hangar. The Langwells lived on the outskirts of one of Long Island’s many small towns, east of the flying field on a part of an ancient farm. There were several acres in the property and since they had become interested in aviation, Harvey and his sister had built a house for their planes out of an old barn. They had smoothed off a fair runway, not as good, of course, as those on the regulation fields, but it was fairly smooth and perfectly safe for landing and taking-off. Nike was brought down in a perfect three-point and mechanically the girl glanced at the wind-sock fluttering under the old weather-cock.

There was a catch in the girl’s throat when she unlocked the long sliding doors and assured herself that her brother’s plane, the Falcon, which that young man rarely used since32 he was back at college, was properly placed so her own machine could be run in easily. While she was attending to the task she heard the house door open, and realized that her mother was probably coming out to learn why she was home so early. With a determined effort she shook off the gloom, or at least its outward appearance, so when Mrs. Langwell appeared she was greeted by a smiling young daughter.

“’Lo, Mummy,” she called.

“All right, my dear?”

“Top hole. As soon as I lock the door I’ll be in with you,” she answered with a disarming cheeriness.

“May I help?”

“Sure, tell me if I’m getting too close to the Falcon’s wings.”

“You have plenty of space.” Presently the two machines were locked in to exchange confidences if they felt so disposed, while Roberta and her mother walked arm in arm to the house. “I suppose you have to take someone in the morning and that is why you have brought Nike home for a visit.”

“No, that’s a wrong guess, Mummy.” They33 went into the house and Mrs. Langwell glanced anxiously at the girl.

“Sure you are all right, dear?”

“Fine as silk. Fact is, Mummy, the stock-market slump has hit some of our directors, hard, and the company has to reduce expenses. Mr. Trowbridge told me when I came back with my passenger this afternoon.”

“The stock-market slump; why, that was months ago!”

“I don’t know much about it except what I heard you and Dad saying last fall. Is it possible that it still affects business?” Roberta didn’t ask because she was at all interested in the “Bulls and Bears of Wall Street,” but just for the sake of talking. She removed her flying coat and hat and hung them, with a sigh, in the hall closet, wondering a bit sadly how soon she would use them again. She knew that she simply couldn’t leave the beloved Nike idle in the hangar; she would certainly take it out for pleasure, but that was different from being really a part of the great force of men and women aiding in the world’s grand and almost brand new industry.

“Probably,” her mother answered. “Your34 father was saying only a few nights ago that a good many big business men have gone on with their projects confident that the financial situation would improve, but while it is getting better, the growth is slow and any number of them have had to drop out.”

“Dad didn’t get hit, did he?”

“No dear, he has some stock in various concerns but it is not the kind that fluctuates with an erratic market.”

“Mr. Trowbridge suggested that I pick up some odds and ends for a while and probably in a few weeks things will be better with the company and I can go back. He was sort of shot up when he told me,” Roberta explained.

“I’ll be mighty glad to have my girl home with me for a while,” Mrs. Langwell smiled.

“And it will not be hard on my own feelings, to stay,” she laughed. “I’ve been thinking I may go in for some record-breaking flights—”

“My dear—” her mother protested.

“I don’t mean stunts; just long distance hops.”

“But will Nike carry gas enough for trips?”

“She’ll go a lot, Mummy. You know Nike35 has been a sort of pet of Mr. Wallace’s and he’s put all sorts of improvements into her. She’s a top-notch bird and no one except us and a few men in the company really know how capable she is, and we’re not telling.”

“Suppose you stay home for a day or two anyway before you fly off from the nest, Honey,” her mother pleaded.

“All right. Tell you what, I’ll take you joy-riding around the skies,” she promised and although Mrs. Langwell made no objection and fully appreciated that flying was a splendid means of travel, she just could not think of herself as a successful joy-rider.

That evening when Mr. Langwell reached home he heard the news with some surprise and questioned Roberta closely. However, he did not make any guesses and did his best to cheer her up.

“You have been most fortunate, my dear, as a young business woman, and this is the first time you have lost a position, so it seems more tragic than anything else in the world, but as you gain experience you will understand that almost any enterprise has its ups and downs, the downs often being in the majority.36 Sudden changes are frequently necessary. Just figure up your assets; you have Nike, an A-One license, know how to be a good secretary in case you cannot get a pilot’s berth, some money in the savings bank—”

“And health,” her mother added.

“And the best family in the world,” Roberta laughed. “My goodness, when I come to count my blessings they mount up to the skies, almost.”

“That’s the way to look at it,” her father encouraged. “Life is not all a path of roses, and sometimes even the roses have thorns. When things run along too smoothly one gets careless and unprepared to face the rough places.”

“Guess it is like flying,” Roberta answered. “You have to keep alert for the pockets, bumps, and cliffs, besides watching the machinery, if you don’t want a smash.”

“That’s the idea. I know your mother will be happy if you remain grounded for a while, and I am sure that if I try hard, I can bear up under it,” he grinned mischievously.

“Dad, you are a fraud,” the girl laughed heartily.

37 “As long as my efforts are not flat tires I’ll survive that,” he retorted, and after that the fact that she had lost her position was dismissed, the three spent a thoroughly enjoyable evening. Before she hopped into bed that night, Roberta glanced at the converted hangar and couldn’t suppress a little sigh.

“As a good sport, I am something of a flat tire myself,” she said softly and was about to turn away from the window when she thought she caught sight of something moving slowly along the door. Instantly forgetting sleepiness she stared hard for fully a minute until she convinced herself that there was something there. “It may be a dog,” she told herself, for although the Langwells didn’t have one, most of the neighbors did, and at night the beasts were given to prowling about the community.

Watching a bit longer the girl came to the conclusion that if it was a dog the beast was behaving oddly. She didn’t recall ever seeing one move so stealthily. She reasoned that it might be getting ready to pounce on something, but in the darkness she couldn’t see a thing it could be after. If it was a man, a38 prowler, what was he doing near the hangar? Her heart leaped to her throat as she thought of Nike poised inside beside the Falcon, but certainly no one would dream of trying to steal the ancient plane belonging to her brother, for its days of usefulness were practically over. Yet, she was sure that no one knew that her own prize machine rested behind that door. The huddled bunch of blackness moved forward, gave a little leap, and she leaned over the sill.

“Sure, it’s a dog. Probably one of the big ones on a neighborly tour of investigation.” She watched a bit longer, and was just about to get into bed when she spied a thin streak of light, like a carefully shaded flash, that cast a faint glow on the ground. Then it began to travel swiftly up toward the lock and to her straining ears came the faintest sound of scraping. Quick as a thought Roberta threw on a robe, jammed her feet into her slippers as she hurried across the room, then raced to her Father’s door, where she knocked.

“Dad, dad,” she called softly.

“My dear, what is the matter?” Mrs. Langwell had heard and leaped out of bed in fright39 before her husband was fully awake. Her hand moved along the wall for the electric switch, but Roberta placed her own over it quickly.

“Don’t, Mummy,” she whispered.

“What is the matter, Berta?” her father asked. He was wide awake now and up beside her. “Are you sick?”

“No, Dad, but someone is trying to get into the hangar!”

“To get into the hangar?”

“Yes, I saw someone moving by the door and watched it. Thought it was a dog, then whoever it is turned on a little light by the opening,” she explained excitedly.

“No one would try to steal the planes, either of them, dear, it would make too much noise,” he protested.

“If they get the door open they could muffle the machine a bit, roll it out and get away,” she insisted.

“That is so,” he admitted.

“They would not have to take it far before they start the engine, then they can get off in it. Nike doesn’t need any warming up—”

“That’s so. Come into your room.” The40 adults’ own sleeping quarters did not face the rear, so the old barn could not be seen or watched from their windows.

“You must be careful, both of you,” Mrs. Langwell urged anxiously.

“We will.” He had already gotten into his own shoes, which he did not stop to tie, while his wife handed him his bath robe, which was dark colored and warm.

“Come along.” The pair, with Mrs. Langwell following in the distance, proceeded quickly. In a moment they were at the window, and there was no doubting the fact that prowlers of some kind were working to open the door. The light shone in a faint round circle over the lock, and a figure, which looked tall and grotesque, was busy with a tool. So far as they could see, only one person was at the hangar but they were reasonably sure that at least one guard was on duty to warn the robber if necessary.

“I’m going out—.” Mr. Langwell caught her quickly.

“Do nothing of the kind,” he ordered firmly. “Get me that old shotgun out of the closet. Be careful of it.”

41 “All right.” She flew swiftly to the place where her father stored all sorts of odds and ends, including an ancient double-barreled shotgun which had been one of his treasures when he was a young man. Since the children had grown up it had been kept loaded and both of them had been taught how to handle it without danger. Quickly Roberta took it from its hooks and hurried back to her father.

“Thank you. Stand back.” He rested the long barrel on the sill, the sight trained on the barn, then, without an unnecessary sound, he pulled the trigger, first one, then the other. There was a loud report, followed instantly by a hail of lead which crackled as it spattered over a wide surface.


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