A RUNAWAY PLANE

The four lads had not progressed more than a couple of hundred yards,
however, when suddenly and without warning, apparently out of nowhere,
there developed one of those sporadic but furious wind storms which in
reality are miniature hurricanes, though seldom doing any real damage.

It started with what seemed to be but a slight puff of wind, which went
zephyring merrily on its innocent way. But this was only the forerunner,
the vanguard, so to speak, of something more substantial to follow–as
the four young men speedily learned.

Over the crest of the hill ahead of them appeared what at first seemed
to be nothing more than a heavy mist. As a matter of fact, for several
seconds it failed to attract any attention. Then Big Jack, regarding it
rather curiously, called the attention of the others to it.

It was approaching with increasing speed, and as it came nearer it was
apparent that it was a vast twisting, swirling cloud of dust and dirt
that was being carried along in the teeth of a strong wind. It seemed to
be gathering momentum every foot of the way.

When it was within a few feet of them the lads followed a natural
instinct and bent their heads to avoid the full blast of the pelting
sand and dirt.

It enveloped them like a typical desert storm and lasted longer than any
of them had expected it would. Even when it was over they were not able
to immediately resume their way.

Big Jack and Don were for the moment out of commission, both having been
temporarily blinded by the particles of dirt that got into their eyes;
while Fred was making frantic efforts toward what seemed an attempt to
stand on his head, though in reality he was trying to shake out of his
shirt a great quantity of sand that had sifted down there. Andy was
running around in circles, vainly peering into the air in search of his
hat.

In a wild lurch for it, just as it took another upward swerve, he
collided with Fred, sending that youth sprawling face downward over the
ground.

Jack and Don both recovered their vision just in time to witness this
unscheduled event, and to see Andy’s hat come down fifty feet up the
hill–another freak of such a storm–instead of somewhere down near the
sea, where it might have been expected to land.

“I don’t see anything funny in that,” Fred complained, as he and the
other two came up to where Andy, having recovered his top-piece, was
awaiting them.

“In what?” Andy asked, seeing that Fred was addressing him.

“Why, in kicking a fellow when he’s not looking–the way you just did to
me.”

“I didn’t kick you, old acrobat,” Andy explained good-naturedly. “You
just got in the way, and believe me, I was going so I couldn’t stop.”

“Humph! Better look where you’re headin’ next time,” Fred warned.

“Well, so near as I could make out, you were headin’ toward China,” Andy
answered soothingly. “What was it you were looking for?”

But before Fred could make an answer it became apparent that they were
in for another siege like the first.

Another gust of wind, equally sand-laden, appeared over the brow of the
hill. This time the four lads turned their backs to the approaching
gale. As they did so, and just before it enveloped them, they saw the
first cloud pass out to sea. So, also, did something else.

Big Jack was perhaps the first to see it, though each caught just a
fleeting glimpse before the second miniature hurricane wrapped itself
about them.

All started as though by instinct back toward the shore. But they could
not see a thing for several seconds, until the cloud of dust, traveling
even faster than they were, got ahead of them and lifted upward over the
water.

What they saw then was disconcerting, startling.

The big hydro-plane which had brought them from America to Europe, and
which, in their happiness and enthusiasm at having safely arrived on
European soil, they had utterly forgotten to anchor, evidently thinking
that like the old farm house it would “stand without hitching”, was in
the full teeth of the wind, headed back toward the land of its birth!

The involuntary exclamation that escaped Big Jack as a burst of speed
put him in the lead of the others, was like the cry of a savage chief,
rallying his followers for the hunt. And it had just that effect upon
the others.

Nothing else counted just now but getting back that sea-wandering plane.
It was not a calculated or reasoned or thought-out proceeding, but a
blind rushing after something that had gotten away–as, for instance,
one will risk all sorts of dangers in unthinkingly rushing into the
street and amidst traffic after a hat that has blown away.

As Big Jack reached the edge of the water, only a few feet ahead of the
other three, he did not even diminish his speed, but with a great splash
waded in, followed by the others.

In a few seconds all were beyond wading depth and swimming vigorously.

But, excellent swimmers though all of them were, it was a risky and even
foolhardy adventure at best; for they were fully clothed, and there was
no telling how far the plane might be carried before the wind rose
sufficiently above the surface to release it from its grip.

For ten minutes they swam gallantly, and then it became apparent that
the direction of the wind had swerved and was following a line almost
parallel with the shore.

In a scattered line, Big Jack now well in the lead, Andy next, then,
some distance behind, Fred and Don, close together, they continued with
all their strength for another quarter of an hour.

It was probably a glance shoreward, which gave him his first inkling of
how far out to sea they had gone, that gave Jack Carew the courage to
put all his remaining strength into a final spurt. He realized that he
was pretty far spent himself, and the slowing up of the others indicated
that the awful gruelling was having its effect on them the same way.

The wind had died down and here was the chance of reaching the wayward
plane. Big Jack never strove harder than he did then. When he was almost
in reach of the hydro he heard a muffled cry behind him. It was Andy,
almost exhausted.

He measured the distance. He saw Fred and Don come up with Andy and
grasp the exhausted swimmer, one on either side.

“They’ll be all right for a minute,” he muttered. “But we’ll all be out
if we don’t get the plane now.”

A dozen lusty strokes took him to where the big craft was now lying
motionless on the water. For several seconds he hung to the side, too
weak to lift himself aboard. Then came another cry from where the other
three were struggling in the water, thirty feet away.

Big Jack took in the situation at a glance. Andy was unable to help
himself, and he was too much for the other weakened swimmers to handle.
It was a desperate moment.

“Hey, you, Andy!” Jack shouted, in a peremptory, seemingly angry tone.
“Tread water!”

Andy heard and seemed to realize. The others could not waste an ounce of
strength in talk, but as Andy followed directions and so relieved them
somewhat of his weight, they shot appreciative looks at Jack.

It was all up to him now. They couldn’t make the plane with Andy. They
couldn’t abandon him to drown there.

“Steady!” shouted Jack. “I’ll have the plane there in a minute.”

So saying he jumped off the other side, and, throwing his whole weight
in the plunge, and kicking out with all his strength, started the plane
in the direction of the other three.

It was a long, killing task, but he did it, just as Andy’s head went
under. Don, now almost exhausted, grasped at a wing of the plane to save
himself.

“Get on there, too!” Jack shouted to Fred as he dived for Andy. He came
up an instant later, with the half-drowned man in his grasp.

Fred and Don were by now in the plane. Jack, puffing rapidly, held
Andy’s head above the water, while the other two caught their breath.
Then, with the last effort they had in them, they hauled the unconscious
Andy aboard, and Jack struggled up after him.

It was Jack now who was near the end of his tether. He had done nearly
twice as much work as the others, and he had for the moment used up his
last ounce of tremendous strength.

“Lay Andy across that frame,” he weakly directed the other two. With
great difficulty they followed his directions. But already Andy was
showing signs of returning consciousness.

They left him where he was. There was nothing else any of them could do.
They lay where they had sprawled, each gasping weakly for breath. When
Andy opened his eyes it was to see them thus–and the shore line almost
three miles away!

Andy moved slightly. It is altogether likely that at that moment he
hadn’t the slightest idea or recollection of where he was. The movement,
however, was calculated to bring a sudden and somewhat rude awakening.
Limp and to all appearances lifeless, Andy had been “hung” across the
framework with a nicety of balance which the others at the time had not
realized. When he moved all was different.

The equilibrium was lost, and Andy, with one wild and ineffective grasp
at the empty air, came down with a thump and a grunt–a very life-like
grunt–into the fuselage of the plane.

Despite their own miseries, the others could not help but smile. Andy
gave a puzzled glance around, seemed to have his first realization of
where he was, and, perhaps, an inkling of how he got there, and then he,
too, grinned weakly.

Thus they lay for twenty minutes or half an hour, unable to do aught but
watch the slowly receding line of shore, as parallel with it, they
drifted southward.

This steady drift, however, was presenting a new menace. At any time
wind or current might change to send them out to sea. To permit that
would be to flirt with death from starvation and thirst, for there
wasn’t an ounce of petrol left in the tanks.

In an hour all had so far recovered as to permit a hasty counsel. They
speedily reached a decision that there was but one thing to do, and that
must be done at once. They must get the plane back to shore, and the
only way that could be done was by one or two of them swimming, to give
propulsion to the craft.

It promised to be a long and difficult task, but it presented none of
the dangers that attended their swimming in the open sea. It was merely
a matter of pairing off, and, two at a time, dropping over the sides,
and, holding to the craft, pushing outward with their feet, the same as
though they were swimming.

Jack and Don went at it first, and for half an hour they worked
heroically, appreciably diminishing the distance between the craft and
shore, but still leaving what seemed to be nearly two miles intervening.
Then they were relieved by the now recovered Andy and Fred.

Thus alternating, they kept at the task for two hours, and the sun
dipped in the western waters and twilight came before they were within
what they could consider a safe distance of land.

It was Jack and Don who finished up the last lap, and, as darkness fell,
brought the craft back into shallow water.

But they were upon an entirely different part of the coast–a barren,
rocky section, apparently without inhabitants.

Fortunately each had, in the locker of the plane, a change of clothes.
These they brought ashore, but not a match could they find.

Having securely anchored the craft this time, they entered a little
grove, some hundred yards or more from the shore, and there changed
their clothes, hanging the wet garments on the limbs of the trees to
dry.

“We can’t do more tonight,” Jack yawned, when this job was completed.
“I’m nearly dead, and I guess you fellows are, too. There’s no sign of a
house anywhere around here, so I guess we’ll have to bunk on the ground
for tonight.”

“Suits me,” said Andy Flures, wearily. “I could sleep anywhere.”

With their arms for pillows they stretched out on the softest ground
they could find, and before fifteen minutes had elapsed four husky but
tired-out young men were snoring lustily and rapidly regaining their
rest in sleep.

There is a time when Nature takes her toll, no matter what the worldly
matters may be at stake.