Ruthe Wheeler.

Jane, Stewardess of the Air Lines





Chapter Twenty-four
Dangerous Passengers

Miss Comstock and Jane remained in the village two days, ministering to the needs of the stricken children and playing first assistant to the over-worked village doctor. Then another Federated Airways plane, one of the old tri-motors, dropped down on them and whisked them back to Cheyenne. From the governor came a personal note of appreciation for what they had done.

After that the winter tapered off. The storms were less severe and the flying schedules were maintained, almost without interruption. Jane and her companions found their routine duties pleasant, for no two days were alike. The weather varied, passengers changed and there was always the element of the unexpectd injecting itself into their work.

Spring arrived in a shroud of rain and fog, but with the improvement of the radio beacons, the planes were seldom delayed. The end of their first year as stewardesses neared and it was late in May when Jane, aboard the eastbound Coast to Coast Limited, swooped down on the field at Omaha.

To her surprise, the first passenger to step aboard was Miss Hardy, the supervisor of nurses at Good Samaritan. Jane was genuinely glad to see her, for it had been through Miss Hardy she had received the opportunity to join the stewardess service.

The Coast to Coast was five minutes ahead of schedule and Jane and the supervisor had a chance to visit. Miss Hardy explained that she was going to Chicago for a part of her vacation and had finally managed to make up her mind to fly.

Perhaps Id better say my brother convinced me, she smiled. Ive been in Omaha a week. Hes a regular aviation fan and comes out to the field two or three times a week to watch the night planes come in. After he dragged me along, I began to feel that I wasnt afraid to make the trip.

Youll enjoy every minute of it, Jane assured her, and Im especially delighted that your first trip is with me. Slim Bollei, one of the most skilled pilots on the line, is at the controls today. That means youll have a smooth, comfortable trip. Once in a while a cross wind gives the passengers a little trouble, but travel is unusually comfortable today.

Youve certainly attracted national attention, said Miss Hardy. Ive read of your exploits on several occasions, once when the bandit plane tried to abduct that wealthy New York woman and again when you flew to some small town with a supply of much needed serum.

It wasnt done for publicitys sake, said Jane, but the public and the newspapers arent used to stewardesses on planes and when they do anything out of the ordinary, thats news.

Departure time came and Jane saw that Miss Hardy was settled comfortably, in a chair next to a window, and halfway back on the right side of the plane. Miss Hardy looked older and her eyes appeared tired. She must have had a hard year with the new classes of girls at Good Samaritan, thought Jane.

They roared off the field, flashed over the muddy Missouri, and then struck out across the rolling farm land of western Iowa.

The country was fresh, with the green of the pastures contrasting sharply against the black of the corn fields, in which the first spears of the new stalks were starting to peep through the top soil.

Several times on their swift flight over Iowa, Jane stopped to talk with Miss Hardy, who appeared to be enjoying the trip immensely. It was a non-stop hop from Omaha that afternoon and almost before they knew it, the graceful craft was settling down on the Chicago field.

Ive enjoyed the trip so much Im going in and make my reservation for the return flight, said Miss Hardy, as Jane helped her out of the plane.

Then Ill look forward to having you booked on my plane, said Jane. Thanks so much for your recommendation last year. It helped a great deal in getting jobs for Sue and me.

Sue arrived the next morning on the slower Night Flyer and found that she was booked out that night for the return to Cheyenne. Business eastbound had been heavier than the westbound traffic, and as a result there were more girls at the Chicago airport than needed. Jane was assigned to fly back with Sue, resuming her regular schedule from Cheyenne on the Coast to Coast on the second day.

When Sue got her passenger list, there were only four, all of them going through to the coast.

Looks like an easy trip, she told Jane.

Two traveling men were the first aboard and they were followed a few minutes later by a woman of about forty, who was accompanied by a curly-haired boy of seven or eight.

Sue nudged Jane sharply.

Those people are down as Mrs. Henry Smith and son, but that boy looks like Jackie Condon, the famous movie star.

Jane looked again. The boy certainly resembled the lad she had seen on the screen so many times in the last two years. His salary was reported to be fabulous, his weekly pay so large the figures dazzled.

Two minutes before starting time, there was a jam at the gate and two men, well dressed, with dark, smooth faces, hurried forward, waving tickets.

Youre just in time, said Sue, taking their tickets and assigning them to forward chairs.

They nodded and entered the plane. Jane standing beside the landing stage saw something that alarmed her, as the second man passed. His coat slipped open just as he bent to go through the door and she caught a glimpse of a gun in a shoulder holster. Guns were not unfamiliar sights to the stewardesses, for each pilot went armed, but a gun on a passenger was a different thing.

What were the names of those men? she asked Sue.

Anton Mellotti and Chris Bardo. Why?

The last man, Bardo, is carrying a gun.

Wed better tell Charlie Fischer. Hes flying us west tonight.

They hurried ahead and caught Charlie just before he climbed into the cockpit.

So weve got a gunman aboard, said Charlie, when the girls informed him of what Jane had seen. Well see about that.

Charlie entered the cabin and tapped Bardo on the shoulder. Jane couldnt hear what he said, but when Charlie returned he didnt have the gun.

He flashed a deputy sheriffs badge and there wasnt anything I could do, explained Charlie. You kids have let your imaginations run away with you. Its time to go.

Sue and Jane went aboard and Jane gave her friend a hand in strapping the passengers into their seats. Then they sped westward as though racing to overtake the sun.

Jane picked up a movie magazine from the pile aboard the ship. On the fifth page was a large picture of Jackie Condon. Jane looked at it sharply and then at the boy passenger. There was no mistake. Sue was right.

She looked ahead at the passengers who had arrived just before their departure. Mellotti was heavy set, with black hair and beetling brows. Bardo was taller, lithe and quick of action. His eyes, so dark a brown they were almost black, shone with animation and when he looked at Jane she felt a queer chill creep along her spine. There was something sinister in his manner.

The trip westward was uneventful and they left Omaha on time. It was near Kearney when Jane, who had been reading an Omaha paper, looked up to see one of the passengers standing in the aisle. She started ahead to tell him that it was against orders when she saw something glinting dully in his right hand. Other passengers were raising their hands.

It was Mellotti, gun in hand. Bardo, also carrying a weapon, was hurrying toward the pilots cockpit and Jane knew that the suspicion which had gripped her in Chicago was a reality. They were abducting the young film star.

Chapter Twenty-five
On Desperate Wings

That night was timeless for Jane. Always she would remember the stark horror of it as the plane roared through the darkness with the gunmen in control.

Mellotti remained in the cabin, guarding the passengers. Up ahead Bardo forced Charlie Fischer to swing the plane off the transcontinental airway. They were flying north. That was all Jane knew.

The hours slipped away with aching slowness. Jackie Condon and his mother remained calm and the traveling men started a card game. When the sky finally lightened, they were over a great, flat expanse of country with a chain of mountains barely visible in the west. Jane guessed they must be somewhere in Canada, just east of the Rockies.

Fifteen minutes later the plane landed and taxied across a weedy field to a lonely road that wound across the prairie. A truck, laden with barrels of gasoline, was waiting. Jane and the others were not permitted to leave the cabin while Bardo forced Charlie Fischer and his co-pilot to help fill the wing tanks. When that task was done, Bardo entered the cabin.

Get out, he told the traveling men.

Hey, you cant maroon us like this the older one protested.

Get out, repeated Bardo, his black eyes snapping, and they hastened to obey.

Jane and Sue started to follow the traveling men, but Bardos soft voice stopped them.

Stay here. We want you to take care of this youngster. His mother gets off here.

Mrs. Condons protests were to no avail and she was shoved roughly from the plane.

Bardo disappeared up ahead and presently the motors started. Mellotti locked the door and the plane swung around for a dash across the field. Janes face blanched as she saw Charlie Fischer and the co-pilot standing on the ground. Bardo was flying the plane. She and Sue and Jackie Condon were alone with the kidnapers.

Bardo appeared to be a flyer of above average ability for he handled the large plane easily. They sped westward, climbing over what Jane was sure were the snow-crested Canadian Rockies. Then they dropped down the other side, and a great expanse of water loomed ahead.

The plane turned northward, skimming over the coast line. For fully an hour they went on and then Bardo brought the transport down on a long shingle of sand. It was an easy landing and Jane admired his skill.

Moored nearby was a seaplane and in a clump of trees a hundred yards from the beach were two cabins. It was an ideal hideaway and Jane knew that unless a miracle happened, there was little chance of searching parties finding them.

The girls and Jackie were ordered to the larger of the two cabins.

You take care of the boy. Itll be just too bad if anything happens to him, said Bardo darkly. They had been joined by a third man, evidently the pilot of the seaplane. Like the gunmen who had captured the transport, he was dark and swarthy.

Jackie was a delightful youngster and Jane and Sue admired his calm courage.

Of course I was scared, he said, but I didnt dare let those fellows know. I guess well just have to wait until someone comes along and rescues us.

He was brave about it, but Jane knew that no one was going to come along and rescue them. They would be held until Jackies mother paid the ransom demand or. But Jane couldnt think of the other possibility and she set her mind to working on some plan of escape.

There was plenty of food in the cabin and the girls and Jackie were given the freedom of the beach. That first night Jane couldnt sleep much, turning and tossing as she tried to evolve some plan of escape. To attempt to flee in the transport was impossible for she didnt know the first thing about piloting one of the big ships. But the seaplane. That was different. Of course she had never flown one, but it looked like a common biplane only instead of wheels it had pontoons. Certainly the operation must be the same.

Jane was up with the dawn. The seaplane was still moored a few yards from the beach, the canvas cover shielding the motor.

Throughout the day she waited, hoping the men might leave the beach for a few minutes, but her hopes were unavailing. Night came and they were locked in the cabin.

When she was sure that no one was within earshot, Jane told Sue and Jackie what she hoped to do.

If I can get out to the seaplane and get it started Im sure well be able to get away, she whispered, but first weve got to get out of the cabin.

They tried the windows, one by one, and the third appeared loose. Working quietly with a kitchen knife they finally slid the window aside.

The darkness was heavy and Jane slipped through the window first. Jackie was second and finally Sue. The lights were out in the other cabin and they moved swiftly down to the beach. Little waves lapped the sand.

Do you think the waters deep? Sue whispered.

Ive got to chance it, replied Jane. The rowboats padlocked. Here goes.

She plunged in boldly. The bottom fell away gradually and the water was only a little more than waist deep when she reached the pontoons and pulled herself aboard.

Turning, she called softly to Sue.

Wade out with Jackie. It isnt deep.

A minute later Sue, holding Jackie in her arms, was beside the seaplane and Jane helped them aboard.

Get into the forward cockpit, she said. Im going to cast off the mooring line.

Once free of the line which held it, the seaplane started drifting along parallel with the beach. Jane scrambled back to the pilots cockpit after pulling the canvas off the motor. Guardedly she turned on the light over the dash. Some of the instruments were unfamiliar, but it was a standard control plane. Her heart leaped for she knew she would be able to fly it.

What are we going to do now? asked Sue.

Wait for dawn.

But that will be hours.

We cant risk a takeoff in the night, replied Jane. Make yourselves as comfortable as you can. At least were on our way.

Through the night they drifted, the current keeping them just offshore. With the first light, Jane saw they were at least three miles from the cabins. In a few more minutes their absence would be discovered.

Wake up, she told Sue and Jackie. Were starting home.

Jane primed the motor and snapped the starter switch. The motor failed to catch and she primed it again, this time successfully. The trim plane shook as the propeller spun in the early morning light.

In order to take off into the wind, Jane was forced to turn the plane toward the cabin. Then she opened the throttle, gritted her teeth and held the stick hard. The seaplane leaped forward, skimming the tiny waves. It shook itself free and Jane knew they were a step nearer home.

They passed close enough to the beach to see Bardo and his two fellow kidnapers run from the cabin. Then Jane banked the seaplane and sped southward. Where they were headed she could only guess, but they were one their way.

Sue yelled and pointed back. Jane turned. The kidnapers were getting the transport ready for flight, but it would be at least another five minutes before they could get into the air.

They rounded a rocky headland and Jane dropped the seaplane low, barely skimming the water. They would be harder to follow down low.

The top speed of the seaplane was 110 an hour and Jane knew that the transport, capable of almost double that, would soon be upon them. They must find shelter soon.

Fifteen minutes later the transport, coming low and fast, roared into view. Not more than five minutes was between the planes now and still no village had been sighted. The distance between the planes was vanishing like magic when Jane caught sight of a trail of smoke out to sea. It was a desperate chance but worth it.

Banking the seaplane sharply, she sped away from the coast with the transport diving at an angle to cut her off. It was going to be close, but Jane pushed the throttle wide open and somehow the little craft found an added ten miles an hour.

The outlines of the ship appeared. It was low and rakish and painted grey, but whatever it was, it looked like a haven. A cry from Sue drew Janes attention from the pursuing plane.

The coast guard! shouted Sue and Janes heart leaped. She dove for the ship, waving frantically. Above her the transport circled, afraid to follow.

Jane, too elated to worry about the hazard of landing the seaplane, made an almost perfect descent and taxied alongside the coast guard vessel, which had been brought to a halt. Officers and men lined the rail for it was seldom that two girls and a boy appeared in a seaplane.

Jane stood up and cupped her hands.

Can you take us aboard? Weve got Jackie Condon, the missing film star.

Youve what? roared the amazed commander.

Jane repeated her message and a boat was dropped by the destroyer. It came alongside the seaplane handsomely, took the mooring line, and towed the plane up to the destroyer. Jane went aboard and told her story to the astounded commander. The radio cracked out the good news that a whole nation had been waiting to hear. Then followed directions intended to bring the apprehension of Bardo and his band of kidnapers.

The destroyer, en route to Alaska, turned about and with funnels trailing heavy ribbons of oily smoke, sped toward Seattle under forced draft. Jane and Sue looked over the rail at the mountainous coast line of British Columbia. In less than a week, they would be back on the transcontinental, settling into their routine work.

Know what day this is? asked Jane.

Our first anniversary, smiled Sue. We joined the airways just a year ago. Think how much has happened?

Just think how much more can happen in the coming year, replied Jane, wondering vaguely what new adventure might be ahead of them.

THE END

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