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CHAPTER VII A PRISONER
Having ascertained that there were two planes in the air, Mrs. Pollzoff opened her throttle again, turned the machine as if she were returning to the field and glanced at the indicator to be sure that her nose and tail lights were on. Looking toward the other machines she mentally calculated their course and watched the one which was coming to the south of her. She noted with a scowl that when she came around it swerved off its route considerably, but the second pilot exhibited his lack of interest in her movements by rushing steadily forward, zooming to be well out of her way, and passing on toward the Canadian border.

“If you are following me I shall give you114 a good run for your money,” the woman snapped furiously.

She lifted Nike’s nose, climbed gradually to seven thousand feet, leveled off, then proceeded at an even keel, racing at the machine’s top speed; then she started to descend, going more and more slowly, until the altimeter registered two thousand feet. At that level she shut off her engine a moment to listen, glanced at the chart, and then convinced that the larger plane was determined to keep tabs on her, she shut off the lights, and risked a smash-up by gliding to a thousand feet. She could see the larger plane high and in back of her, the roar of its engine sufficient to drown that of Nike; then she opened the throttle, keeping the head and tail lights out, throwing a cover over the dim light in the cock-pit, and began to climb slowly.

Nike rushed swiftly forward at its highest speed, lifting gradually and Mrs. Pollzoff kept her eyes on the covered control-board, shielding it so that the glow could not be seen by anyone in the air. Twice she glanced over her shoulder and through the blackness115 of the starless heavens could see the other plane moving more swiftly now toward the spot where its pilot must have calculated that she had made her landing. It was descending gradually and with a chuckle of satisfaction over the scheme she had planned to shake off possible pursuers, she lifted Nike’s nose again and climbed more steeply. At ten thousand feet she came around in a wide sweep then reset her course for the northwest which they had been following since the take-off.

Occasionally she looked at the unconscious girl beside her, and once, when she saw by the clock how long it had been since Roberta passed beyond the realm of consciousness, she pressed her finger over the girl’s wrist. In a moment she ascertained that the pulse was beating, although very slowly, then she drew up the gauntlet and unhooked the throat band of the coat.

“If you die, I don’t give a care, but I’d rather you wouldn’t, for I’m going to take a lot of the conceit out of you and your friends before I get through with you. But die if you want to, for I’ll drop you overboard116 into one of the lakes. This part of the world is full of them and you’ll go down so far they will never be able to tell that you didn’t do it naturally. I’ll see to that.” She spoke as if she expected to be heard and understood, but Nike had hit a mighty rough place in the air and for the next five minutes demanded every bit of her attention.

Making a careful survey of the heavens and the world beneath her, she bared her teeth and grinned maliciously, because there wasn’t a sign of another plane. She calculated that by the time the second pilot had shut off his engine to descend, if he did, Nike was too far on its way for them to hear its engine, so would be lost to them for good.

“And they won’t pick me up again,” she declared with satisfaction, but although she felt confident that she was safe from pursuit, she made it her business to be alert every moment.

The fact that the night was dark and there were no stars, helped her, for the instant a plane’s light flashed into the sky she would be able to see it easily. By that time a stiff wind was blowing. It shrieked dismally117 through the struts and braces, and Nike plugged on and on with a wail of protest. One thing she watched with the greatest care was the engine, for she did not know how it would stand up on an endurance flight. But it was hitting steadily, behaving quite as if it had not traveled for hours and seemed perfectly capable of going on indefinitely.

They had crossed the border and were well into Canada when a slight movement on the part of her prisoner warned her that the girl was regaining consciousness. She glanced at the white face, saw the head move slightly, the lips part, but the movement ceased after a minute, and Roberta sank back into a state of unconsciousness. With so many things to observe, Mrs. Pollzoff grew less cautious and folded the cover she had spread over the cock-pit lights, but she dimmed everything except those she actually needed to read the dials in front of her. The wind was shrieking now, so she tried to set a course which would keep her out of the storm which she knew as surely rising, and continued the flight without showing a light.

118 According to the chart they were rushing over a mountainous section and here she zoomed high, lest they meet an obstruction. Her experience with altimeters had not included the latest model on Nike so she was fearful lest the instrument fail to warn her in time to avoid collision with the immovable face of a rocky cliff. Then examining the chart, she swerved sharply out of her course and suddenly, from far ahead she saw another plane circling in wide sweeps. It carried four lights, two blue, one red and the other green.

The sight of this airman gave Mrs. Pollzoff no terrors, for she blinked one of her lights for a moment, then switched it out again. This she repeated twice and flew steadily on until five minutes later the two machines were flying side by side, the other plane, which was larger, slightly above Nike.

In the meantime Roberta had returned to consciousness and was fully aware of what was going on about her. The drug she had been given had caused a sort of paralysis but her mind had cleared several minutes before she stirred. The first thing she knew was119 the fact that Mrs. Pollzoff’s fingers were pressed against her wrist but at that time she was utterly unable to move so much as an eyelash, so she remained as if still completely under the influence of the dope which had been given to her in something she ate. Her head ached furiously, and it seemed as if pins and needles were pricking her whole body.

Slowly the sensation, except the headache, faded, and she was able to think. She tried to remember of what Mrs. Pollzoff had accused her when the drug began to take effect, but she couldn’t remember. By the feel of the plane, the girl Sky-Pilot was able to tell something of how they were flying and she tried to form a plan of escape. As her body recovered she had ventured to move, and in this way had ascertained that she was strapped tightly and was helpless in the passenger seat. The effort to move had been excruciating and when she relaxed again it was as much exhaustion as design.

By the shrill whistle through the struts Roberta knew that they were flying against a high wind, and as Nike bucked forward,120 her engine roaring, and every part of her wailing a protest, she was sure that Mrs. Pollzoff must be fully occupied with the task of keeping the plane balanced. There were times when it fairly jumped, others when it half twisted, and more when the wings dipped under the force of the on-rushing storm, and creaked as if they were being ripped off the fuselage.

Cautiously the girl lifted one eyelid and verified her calculations for Mrs. Pollzoff was leaning far forward in the seat, battling with every ounce of strength and knowledge she possessed. There was almost no light in the cock-pit and Roberta wondered if they were flying without head and tail lights. She wished she could get a glimpse of the control board. What she wanted to see most was the clock, which would tell her how long she had been unconscious. She reasoned that it was not likely they had landed anywhere; for a trussed girl would certainly arouse suspicion and immediate demands for an explanation. If the fact that she was bound went unobserved, still it would be121 noticed that she was either asleep or ill; someone would be sure to investigate.

If they had not landed, and had traveled any length of time at the speed they were going, the gas supply must be nearly exhausted. Venturing to open her eyes wide and look at the sky all she could see was pitch darkness so that did not help her discover how long she had been unconscious, but she had a positive hunch that it had been some hours. If this was right they would be compelled to land soon to replenish the fuel supply.

Mrs. Pollzoff had drawn on her gauntlets, but she hadn’t made a very smooth job of it. There was a rip in the lining of the right one and Roberta’s finger had gone in the wrong way. It was the hand nearest the outside of the cock-pit, so she risked moving it slightly, then she wondered if she couldn’t do something after all to leave a clue as to which way she went. All of her flying clothes were marked with a stamp in indelible ink with her full name. This included the inside of her gauntlet cuffs.

Roberta’s heart hammered hopefully as122 she stealthily wriggled her fingers, pressing them tightly to her side and moving her arm back. She couldn’t do this more than half an inch, but repeating the performance patiently and with the utmost caution she finally succeeded in getting her hand well out. Then, waiting a moment, the next time Nike gave a bump, she flipped the glove as high as she could, and with one half-opened eye, she rejoiced to see that the plane dropped sharply, the wind caught the thing as if it were a leaf and bore it off into the darkness. The girl knew that it would probably land miles from where it left her and she prayed that it would be found soon. She knew, also, that it would probably be some time before her absence or disappearance was noticed. Mrs. Langwell would have the letters from Charleston, and when no more arrived she would start an inquiry. Her dad would get in touch with Mr. Trowbridge or Mr. Wallace.

Even though she was no longer an employee of the Lurtiss Airplane Company, Roberta hadn’t the slightest doubt that the firm, its entire force if necessary, would be123 put out to search for her. She could hear Phil Fisher’s wrathful explosions, and see Larry marching out after the best machine, climbing grimly into its cock-pit and roaring furiously off in pursuit. Thinking of the loyalty of every one of them she wondered if Mrs. Pollzoff realized it and hoped hard that the woman didn’t. Of course everyone knew perfectly well that any pilot, man or woman, who was lost immediately became the focus of the world’s attention until the plane appeared or the wreck was discovered; but everyone could not appreciate the perfect camaraderie which existed in the firm’s organization; especially among the flyers. If it was rumored that Miss Langwell was missing nothing would be left undone to locate her.

Roberta had no doubt that Mrs. Pollzoff would take every possible precaution, and now the girl thought of the possibility of escaping when they came down for fuel. She tried again to catch a glimpse of the control board but that was hopeless, so she gave it up. It was a strain to remain in the same position but she forced herself to do it for she was124 positive that the instant her captor realized that she had come to her senses, she would take further precautions to see that there was no opportunity for her to get away.

Suddenly, on the wind which came to her, she smelled a strong tang of salt water; enough so that she decided they were nearing one of the coasts and that the storm was coming from there. The air was only intermittently salty so she guessed they were still some distance away from the ocean, whichever one it was. Then through the darkness and to her right, she saw a plane flying high and carrying four lights. Almost at once the lights on Nike were flashed, then Roberta was sure that they had been traveling without them. Evidently the woman had been afraid of some one’s following after her. Now the course was changed sharply and presently Nike was racing to the left of a plane about twice as large as her own.

Although Roberta wanted to see what this was all about she dared not move, for she was sure that the other machine carried no friend of hers. Peeping cautiously she saw the machine zoom up sharply, they seemed to125 be going through some sort of maneuver. Mrs. Pollzoff had raised herself in the pilot’s seat as far as the safety strap would permit, then in a moment the larger plane came around to the right. The girl Sky-Pilot promptly closed her eyes lest its pilot warn the woman that she was awake.

Twice the two planes circled, then the larger one rose sharply on Roberta’s side, and a moment later she could see the underside of a monoplane; its huge floats looking like the bottoms of small flat boats. In another second something like a weight dropped into Roberta’s lap and instantly Mrs. Pollzoff caught it up, so the girl decided that her captor must be receiving a message, or sending one by the other pilot, but the next instant something dragged across her knees and unable to contain herself any longer, she raised her lids, only to close them again quickly, for the woman was standing over her. At the moment her face was raised, but then she looked down.

What the girl Sky-Pilot saw made her gasp in astonishment and fear, for Mrs. Pollzoff was hauling in a long tube, which must126 mean that she was going to refuel from the air and not come down at all, at least until the supply was depleted. She might take on a full supply, as much as they had had when they left Charleston, and unless the woman went to sleep over the stick, she could keep going until the following day.

Sick with horror, Roberta tried to make her brain function properly, but it was filled with the wildest terrors and in spite of warm clothing, she felt as cold as if she were wearing summer clothing. In the day time, under the best of conditions, what the two planes were trying to do could be accomplished with skilled pilots at both controls, but in the middle of the night, with a woman at the receiving end of the tube who had been disqualified as a flyer, it was a desperately risky undertaking. Nike’s nose might be jammed up into the other plane’s underpinning or drop so low that the tube would be broken and the machine sprayed with the highly inflammable mixture. A dozen things could happen so quickly to make a smash-up inevitable. She wondered dully why Mrs. Pollzoff didn’t take in new containers, which127 would be less dangerous, and when the girl recalled that the woman had been considered incompetent as a pilot, she was no longer surprised. Probably her examiners had realized that she was too foolhardy to trust with a license.

There were a number of slips, disconnections and reconnections during the performance, and it seemed to Roberta as if hours passed before the work was finally achieved and she felt the long tube with its heavy weight being dragged across her knees again and at last heard them thump and bump against the side of Nike while the other pilot hauled them up to his own machine. Then Mrs. Pollzoff resumed her seat and her appropriated task, but the girl felt her slip down as if weary from the strain. She opened her eyes a bit to see if the woman was able to do anything more and found that she was busy with the controls, and circling in a wide sweep, the second plane was soaring out of her way, the end of the tube extending behind. Then it disappeared from sight.

Again Roberta’s nostrils were filled with that strong odor from the sea and Nike128 zoomed courageously forward, carrying with her every vestige of hope that she might help herself or get help when they were forced to land. There was not a chance in the world that they could come down for hours, unless the engine gave them trouble, and no one knew better than the girl Sky-Pilot that every inch of her plane’s machinery was the best possible and that it would stand long hours of the hardest grilling without showing a sign of weakness. She wondered over and over why Mrs. Pollzoff had kidnaped her and tried to remember what the woman had said as she was losing consciousness, but her head ached with the effort. Then she thought of the glove she had dropped and resolved to get the other one off and send it after the first if possible.

Removing the right gauntlet, which was furthest from Mrs. Pollzoff’s side had been comparatively easy, but slipping out of the other which was placed close to the rip-ring of her parachute and almost under the woman’s nose, was a more dangerous undertaking, but Roberta wasn’t built of the stuff that quits; she knew that a quitter never wins129 and a winner never quits, so she watched until her companion was leaning far enough forward so that the motion of the arm would not attract her attention. Fortunately for Roberta, the woman decided to dim the lights in the cock-pit, so she herself could not see so easily and must keep close to the control-board to watch the dials.

Slowly and cautiously, the girl wriggled her fingers until finally they were partly out of the gauntlet, then she managed to slip it along toward her right hand, hoping to draw it across her lap and throw it as she had the other. Just then, Mrs. Pollzoff tipped Nike’s nose at a sharp angle and climbed swiftly for several minutes, then leveled and shut off her motor. By that time the smell of salt water permeated the air and Roberta was desperately anxious to get the glove over before they reached the shore line where it might be lost in the ocean. In this project Mrs. Pollzoff helped her by leaning far over her own side of the plane, searching beneath her, and Roberta clearly heard the pounding of the breakers. With a slight twist of her body she transferred the gauntlet to her right130 hand, and with a second flip of her fingers, sent it over the side.

Mrs. Pollzoff settled quickly back into her seat while the heavens were split with a million tongues of forked lightning, and after a breathless instant, a terrific crack of thunder boomed and crashed as if bent on the destruction of the whole universe.


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