Howard Books

The Smuggler's Mask

Excerpt Two

Chihuahua state, Mexico, 1967

The cactus stood high, pale green and tan, on each side of the runway. Down at the far end, the saguaro's arms reached up into the glow of the setting sun and the brown haze of dust behind Charley's airplane as though, having just missed their grab for him, they were now ready to snatch Milo from the air.

He smelled the desert, the dust, and the clean heat from his engine, felt every tiny vibration running through the Cessna's airframe, and heard the smooth, honest purr of the Continental engine and the humming bite of the propeller. Tied down behind him on the bare aluminum floor of the Cessna and reaching almost to the cabin headliner were wooden boxes each holding twelve bottles of aged Jalisco tequila, a wrapping of paper around each bottle cushioning it from its neighbors.

Milo had used a calibrated, wooden dipstick to measure the fuel in the Cessna's tanks as Charley spun the handle on a hand pump stuck into a fuel barrel sitting in the bed of a crumpled, Chevrolet pickup truck older than either one of them. Both Milo and Charley had pumped only enough fuel into their tanks, using a chamois skin as a filter, to reach the tequila drop off point across the United States border in New Mexico, plus thirty minutes flight-time reserve. The pickup team waiting for the tequila would have more fuel for them.

Milo pushed in full throttle now, knowing that, even with the light fuel load, the airplane still weighed more than its designed takeoff weight. The big Continental bawled, and the Cessna lumbered down the airstrip. At first, he held the control yoke pulled back into his stomach to lighten the nose and ease the pounding that the rocky runway was giving the nose wheel. With his right hand, he adjusted the engine's fuel/air mixture and felt the engine horsepower jump and the howling propeller bite the thin air.

Milo glanced at the airspeed indicator needle, saw it start to climb and felt the Cessna's high wing begin to lift. He eased the back pressure on the control yoke, holding the airplane's nose up just high enough to allow the nose wheel to float through the bumps. As he steered the airplane down the middle of the airstrip with the rudder pedals, he shot a quick look at the engine instruments and saw that the needles all sat in their normal, green arc positions.

As the Cessna blasted past the big boulder that Milo had earlier placed at the edge of the airstrip to mark the halfway point, he again glanced at the airspeed indicator. He knew that if he was short on speed here, this was the last chance to abort the takeoff and stop before running off the end into the rocks and cactus. It's a go, he thought as he saw sixty five miles per hour pass under the needle. This big Cessna will lift us out of here.

The runway end rushed at Milo, the airplane now dancing light on its main tires, asking him to let it fly. He waited, glanced at the airspeed, saw seventy five miles per hour, waited, knew he was close to eighty miles per hour and nursed the control yoke back toward his belly. The Cessna's nose came up and the airplane waddled into the air as the end of the airstrip flashed beneath its still spinning tires.

Milo was the nerve and control center of the machine, making tiny, smooth control movements with elevator, rudder, and ailerons as the Cessna climbed out over the cactus. We made it, he thought. Then from below, out of the yuccas and saguaros, a burst of machine gun fire, a blast of shotgun pellets, and a scatter of pistol rounds raked the airplane from nose to tail. A glittering spray of tequila, slivers of shattered bottle glass, shreds of aluminum aircraft skin, and fragments of bullets filled the cabin as the shots ripped through.

Goddamn it! Those sons of bitches are shooting at me! Milo's thoughts ran far faster than he could have spoken the words. I've still got control of the airplane, they didn't shoot the control cables away, the engine is still running, and we’re still flying.

The Cessna began to pitch its nose up even as Milo tried to stop it with forward pressure on the control yoke. As he pulled in a breath of air laden with the smell of tequila, he felt something slosh around his feet, glanced down and saw that he was ankle deep in an amber flood of Jalisco Mexico's finest product. The bullets smashing through the boxed tequila had launched an explosion of glass shrapnel, breaking most of the rest of the nested bottles, and the gallons of booze set loose in the cabin were now surging toward the tail of the airplane.

Milo knew that in a few seconds, the weight of it would shift the balance point of the Cessna so far to the rear that he would not have enough elevator control to bring the nose down, and they would lose airspeed, stall, and then spin into the Chihuahua desert.

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