Howard Books

The Smuggler's Mask

Excerpt Four

Zacatecas state, Mexico, 1995

Between the rising sun and the El Coyote hacienda, circling above the highest peaks of the Sierra Madre Occidentals, Charley Mallard sat shivering, hunched over the controls of his rickety Beech 18. Behind his clenched teeth, Charley's dry mouth tasted sour. He couldn't remember when he had last eaten. The thought of a hot cup of coffee made the cold, greasy, lump in his gut twitch. Across the cockpit from him in the copilot's seat, Edwardo sat half frozen, arms folded across his chest, hands clamped under his armpits.

"Why can we not turn the heater on, Señor Charley? My blood is turning to red ice!" Edwardo had to shout across the cockpit at Charley to make himself heard over the engine roar. The cabin walls had long ago been stripped of their insulation and padded panels, leaving bare aluminum which amplified the blast of sound beating against it from the outside rather than smothering it.

"Because that old gas heater is apt to catch on fire, scorch our asses, then blow a wing off of this Beech," Charley yelled back. "Why did you let Oscar steal the best airplane I had instead of this old crate? It's not much more than a pile of spare parts flying around in loose formation."

Charley looked around the cockpit of the rattling Beech 18. The only thing this Beech has that I wish was installed on the stolen one is the JATO bottle system, he thought.

The Jet Assisted Take Off system had never been serviced since Charley had owned the airplane, and he wasn't sure that the rockets would even still fire. Still, whenever he flew this Beech, he always ran the electrical circuit integrity check and armed the system before takeoff. There was no telling when a wound tight engine might tear itself apart on a heavyweight takeoff from a high altitude, short runway airport, in which case a blast of rocket powered thrust to gain enough altitude and time to get the engine shut down and feathered would be the only hope of keeping the airplane out of the rocks.

"Oscar had help!" Edwardo's voice broke into Charley's thoughts, his cold lips stretched into a thin blue snarl across his teeth as he spoke. "That son of a bitch old gringo. Before this is over, I am going to kill him, too."

"You can have Oscar, but Milo Fry is mine," Charley replied. "You couldn't handle that son of a bitch old gringo anyway. He was killing better men than you are before your father ever wandered into that cantina and hooked up with your mother."

Edwardo glared at Charley for a moment but then looked away and changed the subject. "What gold was that gringo, Milo Fry, talking to me about when they had me tied up in the hanger?"

Charley rolled the Beech 18 into a bank, turning back to the south, thinking about how best to answer Edwardo's question. Milo doomed Edwardo when he told him about any gold, he thought, but I still need him for a while before I have to kill him. A little more gold talk should warm him up and make him a bit more eager to help. "Milo, Oscar, and the girl stole some grave robbed treasure from me, and Milo hid it on that hacienda down there." Charley pointed down into the valley on Edwardo's side of the airplane. "Right there on the slope at the base of the mountains."

Edwardo looked down at the hacienda then back at Charley, his eyes bright now. "What are we waiting for? Let's go get that treasure!"

Charley shook his head. "No. I don't know just where down there he hid it. Also, do you see that little village just north of the hacienda?"

Edwardo peered down then nodded without raising his eyes from where he was looking.

"Well," Charley said, "even if I did know where the treasure is hidden, that short run of lane between the village and the hacienda back gates is the only possible place to land close by. Even with all of the flight time that I have in these old Beech 18's, it would press me to get on and off of that lane without crashing...and that's if I had a good airplane instead of this one with tired engines and with brakes as worn out as those on your pink Caddy. Milo intends to try it, and I doubt if he can get the job done---but it is the only chance he has of getting that treasure out of there."

"Why try to land an airplane down there at all?" Edwardo asked. "What if they crash and burn? They might get killed on the way in, and the secret of where he hid the treasure would die with them. Or, if they crash on the way out, the locals will gather up the gold while we circle around up here and watch."

If I had told Edwardo about Pancho Contreras yesterday, Charley thought, he would have melted that Cadillac down getting out of Aguascalientes City. But he has nowhere to run if I tell him now.

"We couldn't just drive your old Caddy in there and take the gold, Edwardo. Milo can’t just drive in there either. Pancho Contreras has the hacienda staked out. Yesterday morning we broke through his men to get out of there."

Edwardo jerked his face around toward Charley. His thinned lips were fading from blue to white. Charley saw him mouth the question, "Pancho Contreras?"

"It's way too late to change your mind now, Edwardo. You and I have just one hope and just one chance. Milo is betting that Pancho's men are down the hill from the hacienda, on the other side from where he will be landing and under the fog, giving him a few minutes to get in and out before they figure out what is going on. Our hope is that he does make it in and out of there without crashing."

Charley lifted the Uzi from between the sidewall of the Beech and his seat. Our chance will be to then force Milo down, along with Oscar and his sister, and take the gold. We will also settle our differences with the three of them then go back to Aguascalientes City and pick up men."

Charley watched Edwardo for a moment then handed him the Uzi. Edwardo, grinning, took the black submachine gun and stroked it like he would a pet rattlesnake.

Charley banked around to his right and rolled out heading north again, the valley and hacienda back on his side of the airplane. The mountains across the valley were catching the sun now, grey heads and shoulders of bare granite peaks and ridges, capes of dark green pines, skirts of pale green cedar, oak, and walnut giving way to mesquite and thorn brush. Below that, a hemline of buckskin-brown dying summer grass swept the wispy white top of the fog blanketing the valley floor.

That fog is lapping right at the hacienda front gate, Charley thought as he looked back down to the near side of the valley, but the lane is clear and there ought to be enough sunlight reflected off of the mountains across the valley to the west for Milo to land by. Anytime now...anytime.

Charley let his eyes drift along up the east side of the valley to the north, searching the dusky light. A flicker caught his attention, a tan fleck thousands of feet lower, a tiny Beechcraft Super E18 coasting in from the north close along the mountains. And up jumped the devil, he thought. There that sneaky bastard Milo Fry is!

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