"Pontoon" Jack Carnac
in
Hell hath the Hindenburg!

A 10-chapter novella

By Jeffrey Blair Latta





Episode One:

"Turn the Plane...or Die!"


Over the humming drone of the Wright Whirlwind engine, the gunshot spoke like a quick clap of thunder.

The slim black barrel of the Luger poked barely an inch from the bush pilot's ear, but that pilot, "Pontoon" Jack Carnac, remained unfazed. Only the tightening of his gloved hands on the control wheel hinted at the fierce emotions surging beneath his seemingly impassive exterior--only that and the fiery heat that now sprang up in his steely grey eyes.

For just a moment, languorous smoke curled from the tip of the gun. It coiled against the ceiling, swirling suddenly with the wind whistling through the small neat hole made in the bushplane's windshield. His eyes still directed ahead, Jack couldn't see the face of the man crouched just behind his seat, but he could picture every detail of that countenance--the sharp, blue eyes, jet black hair, lean, pale features with thin, arrogant lips.

The man with the gun was named Andre Robitaille--or so he had claimed. He had hired Jack's Norseman to fly him out to the Yellowknife, giving few details--he was in a hurry to meet an acquaintance, a prospector out working a gold claim. Jack knew now that he should have asked more questions, a lot more.

For instance, what was in the large steel box which comprised the passenger's only luggage, and which was wrapped around with heavy chains and padlocks? And why was Monsieur Robitaille in such a hurry to reach this prospector--so much so that he wasn't even prepared to wait until Jack returned from his present delivery, but insisted on coming along, to be dropped off along the Yellowknife on the way back?

And then there was the other matter--the matter of the girl.

Jack couldn't see her, either--she was back toward the Norseman's tail--but he could picture her now with vivid clarity. Maybe a little too vivid. Mysterious eyes as dark as garnets, hair as black and glossy as sable, and pale features sheathed in skin as supple as sculpted ivory.

When Jack had first seen her as she boarded the bushplane in Fort McMurray, it was all he could do to keep his eyes from widening. But even that restraint had been more than his engineer, Jean-Paul "Skook" Jardin, could manage. The burly engineer's eyes had fairly popped from his head, his bearded jaw dropping and, for a weird moment, Jack had expected the Metis' scarlet mouchoir to spring from his head, like the top of a kettle blown off by steam.

"Tonnerre!" Skook had blurted, in stunned amazement. "Quelle femme, uh?"

Though the engineer had at least had sense enough to keep his voice low, the exclamation had still caused the girl to glance back down at them through the freight door. For a heartbeat, her foamy raven hair had spilled about her face, the light catching her eyes.

Beautiful? She was more than that. She seemed like some indescribably delicate creature from another world, an alien world of silks and perfumes, of dazzling lights and gay music. She seemed utterly incongruous out here on the brink of the world--in this untamed wilderness of trappers and prospectors, of missionaries and lumberjacks.

And, in that moment, as she looked at him, Jack had seen something reflected in those deep mysterious eyes--but what he couldn't be sure. A hint of concern? Of fear, even? At the time he had put it down to the usual preflight jitters. There were risks enough when travelling in the hinterland, what men called the Keewaydin. From ravenous grizzlies to man-swallowing muskeg, there were a million ways to die in the unforgiving bush, and the surest of all was a forced landing in a bushplane. It was nothing strange for passengers to harbour a few last minute doubts.

Now, though, Jack knew he should have paid more attention to that look. Ignoring it had been his first mistake.

He knew he couldn't afford a second.

"What did you do to Skook?" Jack's voice was the snarl of a wolverine. "If you've hurt him..."

Over the steady song of the engine, he had heard no sound of a struggle from the back, but the mere fact that a bullet had just been fired through the windshield proved that something had happened to the engineer; Skook would have died before allowing anyone to injure the "Hell-damner" in such a way.

"'E is alive, m'sieu," Robitaille responded, voice betraying just a hint of tension. "I 'ave merely rendered 'im hors de combat -- as you would say, unconscious. A mere blow to the 'ead, I assure you. Now, will you do as I 'ave asked? Will you change the direction of this plane, gauche..to the left?"

Jack reached up to adjust the goggles on his forehead, giving himself space to think. In the closed Norseman cockpit, the goggles served no purpose, but they had belonged to his father--an RFC air Ace shot down in a Sopwith Snipe during the Great War--and Jack wore them whenever he flew.

Apart from the goggles, he sported his usual ensemble: soft-leather aviator's boots, jodhpurs, and brown flight jacket with wolverine-fur collar. Though he was only of medium height, his frame was lithely muscular, powerful but compact, his trim physique shaped to perfection by the hard life he lived. And when he moved, it was with the fluid grace of a stalking timber wolf.

Finally, after a long pause, he said evenly: "I told you I have to deliver those drugs up to Fort Simpson. They've got a diphtheria epidemic. People will die if I don't get this stuff to them."

"I am sorry for those people," Robitaille replied, in a voice that sounded oddly sincere, "but they will 'ave to wait a little longer for this medicine, uh? My needs are somewhat more urgent. I am, as you might say, in earnest."

Even as Robitaille was talking, Jack's mind was awhirl with possibilities. His Colt was tucked in its hiding place under the co-pilot's seat. If he could just reach the revolver without the gunman noticing--but then what? He didn't relish the thought of a shootout in the cockpit at two thousand feet. He considered putting the Norseman into a roll. But, again, what would that accomplish? As long as Skook remained unconscious, Jack was in this by himself, and he couldn't let go of the control column. There was no getting around it. Robitaille held all the cards.

All except one.

"And what if I say no?" Jack challenged. "What are you going to do--shoot me? You kill me and this plane will crash."

Robitaille breathed out in a thin thread. A moment later, the Luger drew back out of sight, though the gunman's voice remained close behind the pilot's head.

"I 'ad 'oped you would not say that, m'sieu. You 'ave placed me in a difficult position, one which I would rather avoid. But if I must, if you refuse to turn this plane as I 'ave instructed, I promise you the next bullet will find its way into your friend 'ere. I do not believe that will cause this plane to crash, but it will prevent 'im from waking from 'is present sleep, uh?" Jack heard the angry snap of the Luger cocking, and Robitaille's voice turned suddenly hard with deadly resolve. "Now -- turn this plane."

There was no question how Jack would respond. If it had just been his own life on the line, he might have tried to stall a little more, hoping an idea would come to him. But not now. His jaw set, he grimly banked the Norseman, turning onto a new heading, due west, as Robitaille had instructed.

Since leaving Fort McMurray, Jack had been flying a course slightly west of north. Normally, heading into the North, he would have followed the flashing silver thread of the mighty Athabasca River, but not this time. The medicines he carried couldn't wait.

The great gleaming waterway wove its meandering path through a lushly rolling carpet of spruce and pine, tamarack and birch, snaking for five hundred howling miles before emptying into the wide azure sheet of Lake Athabasca. Then, out of that lake ran the shorter Slave River, still headed north, ever north. And when the Slave reached Great Slave Lake, there began the thundering ribbon of the Mackenzie.

This was the Three River Country, river following river, each taking up the tumbling burden carried by the one before. And, since time immemorial, men had followed that three-river track into the illimitable Keewaydin, trusting it to see them through the dark, bewildering bush like a voice calling in the fog. Once, they had followed in birchbark canoes, in great York boats and, in the winter, with dog sleds. Now, in the 1930s, they followed in bushplanes. Why? Because the compass, which, hundreds of years before, had seemingly freed men from the need for landmark navigation, was spitefully rendered useless north of sixty, and the only safe way to travel, even in a bushplane, was the old way, by tracing the winding rivers.

But not today. Today, knowing there were lives at stake, that every moment counted, Jack had abandoned the longer route of the rivers. He had set off across the lush evergreen sea, the gleaming Athabasca gradually vanishing over the eastern horizon, out over the untracked, immeasurable expanse that stretched two thousand miles to Arctic tidewater.

For him the risk was not so great as it might have been for another bush pilot. Even here, high above the seemingly featureless fastness of jackpine and spruce, there were still landmarks discernable to his ever-searching eyes. A tiny silvery flash of water, a white glimpse of a birch-topped knoll, the scar of an ancient forest fire--to Jack each one spelled out his location as clearly as a sign on an Edmonton street corner.

His was a legend whispered in the mining camps and the Hudson's Bay Company trading posts, around crackling pine-scented campfires and along the endless trap-lines--Pontoon Jack, they said, could find his way where no one else had a prayer. No matter what the weather--even in the most bewildering white-out--somehow Pontoon Jack had a sense about these things.

Nor was there another pilot in the Canadian bush could land a plane to match his skill. On ice so thin you could see the trout through it, in snow so deep you could bury a moose, and in spaces so tight it would turn your hair white--Pontoon Jack could land that Norseman on anything, they said, anything at all.

Including the crate it came in.

After a time, on the horizon, Jack had caught the gleaming brink of Great Slave Lake dead ahead. Seconds after that, his passenger had ordered him to change course--ordered, then fired a bullet through the windshield. Now, having obeyed, Jack could only fly on in smoldering silence, his thoughts brooding.

Where were they headed? he wondered. Obviously, the story about a prospector on the Yellowknife had been a ruse. But where was the real destination? They were headed due west. There was nothing in this direction, nothing but lakes and rivers and eventually the foothills of the Rockies. If there was one thing Jack couldn't stand, it was not knowing where he was going.

It had been sometime since Robitaille had spoken. Finally, Jack dared a glance back over his shoulder. The passenger was seated on a crate, the girl beside him. In one hand, Robitaille held the Luger, in the other a strange metal contraption with a loop aerial and a glowing screen which cast a lurid wash over his features. He was studying the device with urgent intensity.

"What's that you've got?" Jack asked, startling both his passengers with the sudden sound of his voice. He took a guess. "Some sort of direction-finder?"

Robitaille looked up, raising the Luger more defensively than threateningly. "No questions, s'il vous plais. You will just fly the plane, uh?"

"How can I fly when I don't know where I'm headed?"

"I will tell you. I will let you know if you must change direction again."

That proved it. That box must be some sort of radio direction-finder, though Jack had never seen anything quite like it before. But that must mean that someone out there was sending a signal, a signal meant to lead them to him. Why? And, more importantly, who?

And what was in the padlocked strong box?

"Look," Jack tried again, "I may not have enough fuel to get where you want to go, did you think about that? If we run out, we'll go down, and I wouldn't give much for our chances of being found--especially not way out here."

"We will not run out of fuel," Robitaille insisted. But the tone of his voice told Jack he wasn't so sure.

In glancing back, Jack was able to make out the dark mound of Skook lying sprawled on the floor. The burly engineer was dressed in moccasins and fringed buckskin jacket, a red scarf knotted about his shaggy head. His deep chest rose and fell with his steady breathing. That, at least, was a relief; Robitaille had spoken the truth. He had merely knocked Skook unconscious.

But why, then, hadn't the Metis woken by now? It had been at least an hour. Jack began to suspect Robitaille had not been so truthful, after all. He believed the passenger had done something more to Skook than a mere tap on the head. But what?

Onward they flew, ever westward, hour after hour, deeper and deeper into the rugged, unforgiving North. Gradually, the purple foothills of the Rockies loomed on the misty blue horizon, grew larger with the passing miles, and then the Norseman was flying amongst them.

Suddenly out of the long silence, Robitaille exclaimed: "Voila! Ici! Below us! You will land the plane below us!"

Jack glanced out the side window. For a space, he was about to tell Robitaille that even Pontoon Jack couldn't land a floatplane in a sea of black spruce--but then he saw the sparkle of water just ahead. It was a tiny lake, nestled deep amongst the emerald thickness, barely more than a pond nearly lost amongst the rolling, jade-clad hills.

"That lake?" he asked doubtfully.

"Oui. Land this plane on the lake."

Jack frowned. The lake was small; it would be a tight squeeze. But he knew he had no choice. Even if he had wanted to, he didn't have enough gas to get back to "the Front".

"All right," he said tightly. "It's your nickel. But I just hope your friends have spare fuel down there. Hold on."

Grimly, he fixed his goggles over his eyes. It was more than an affectation, now. In the bush, every landing, no matter how routine, carried an element of risk, and the greatest of all was the possibility of a branch or stone hurling through the windshield. More than one bush pilot had met his death through loss of control caused by a few pieces of windshield in the eyes.

They had already passed over the lake. Now, under Jack's steady hands, the yellow Norseman banked smoothly, coming around again until the lake glimmered directly ahead. Lower and lower the bushplane descended, until the bristling peaks of spruce and pine shot beneath like racing emerald rapids. Then, in a breathless rush, the forest dropped away and silvery water stretched ahead, a placid lake set in an amphitheatre of pine-crusted slopes.

With a hiss, the pontoons touched down and white spray exploded up past the windows. A moment later, the bushplane eased to a stop in the middle of the lake. The engine roared once more, then suddenly gave way to the vast primordial hush that was as old as the Earth. Jack raised his goggles to his forehead.

"All right," he said. "We're down. Now what?"

But Robitaille gave no response. Instead, it was Jack who gave a startled exclamation. One gloved hand flew to the back of his neck. A black fly had just given him a nasty bite--at least, he thought it was a black fly.

A second after that, he didn't think very much at all...

Next episode...."A 'Orrible Monster!"


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Hell hath the Hindenburg is copyright 2000, Jeffrey Blair Latta. It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews. (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)