Winging high over saw-tooth mountains Rory took a gamble with seconds to spare. It was Nancy’s life and his against the general’s
THE MERCIFUL MISSION OF GENERAL KUNG
ALL THIS took place before the Reds moved down to encircle Shanghai and it should be filed in one of those "Now It Can Be Told" folds. Originally the deal had been for a cargo flight from Takhing to Hangchow with about three tons of medical supplies for the Nationalist Army. That was what the General had said when he moved in on Rory Ballard. Rory just figured what was in it for Ballard Air Lines and didn’t ask too many questions. The prospects of a new four-engined blinded him to all ideas of suspicion.
But that’s getting ahead of the story.
The morning Rory met the General he had wanted to be alone to think things out till he came up with an idea. It had to be a beaut because the Ballard Air Lines of China needed a king-sized lift if Rory and his tribe expected to go on eating regular.
He had moved into a bamboo booth, lit a cigarette and stared through the blue smoke veil. A fine way to wind up—this! After a fellow does thirty-seven hops over the Hump during the war, picking up a couple of gongs for his “courage above and beyond . . .” and then converts his assets into cash as they say on the financial pages, he promotes himself an airline and kids himself he’s big business.
He had made something of a success of it, starting out with a fairly complete Dakota, with Barney O’Brian as co-pilot, navigator and crew chief in his spare time. Then there was Nancy Wickware in the office taking care of the cash (when there was any) and Rory’s heart condition (palpitation of the amorette)☺ whenever they could get a minute together.
The Dakota was no Constellation but it had a gaudy insignia on its beak that would have put Trans-Canada or BOAC to shame. For a year they hung on and picked up a few yen here and there; the weather wasn’t too bad and as long as the Nationals kept General Mao Tse-tung and his Red hordes up north business smirked now and
But gradually it tapered off. They drew a bad landing and discovered the insurance wasn’t all it said in the big print. There was business to be had, but a couple of cannon were needed to get the stuff through—and to get back again. It was that sort of business and Rory wanted no part of it. Always played it clean—and safe.
Ballard clamped his long freckled face in his paws and started figuring. Right away he went into the old “let’s go home” routine. He could dump the bus for what he could get for it and buzz back to Kitchener, Ont., and take Nancy with him. Could be he could get a job back in Canada and slap a down payment on a prefab bungalow. Funny what ideas a person got just reading fourmonth-old magazines a few thousand miles from home. Figuring everyone had a teardrop car or maybe a four-place pleasure ship. Figuring only a moron wouldn’t be drawing down about ten grand a year and lolling about in a thirty-foot cabin cruiser every week end.
That was how it looked from Takhing anyway.
Figuring that if even fifty per cent of the deal was possible, the going-home idea sounded as though the gravy train would meet them in Vancouver. What it all added up to was that Rory needed dough—with dough he could maybe promote a bigger job, one that came equipped with what was needed. A real cargo carrier with tankage that
would take him places where people would pay for freight movement. A four-engined bus with instruments and oxygen to get over the bad spots— maybe a pressurized cockpit. The business was there if he had the equipment to handle it, but not in that old beat-up Dakota.
He thought: “I’ll bet there’s a thousand other mugs figuring out the same thing, and I’ll bet they’re just as blank about an answer too. Unless you’re in a scheduled airline job you’re for the cleaners. I’ll bet there’s a million birds like me, with a war in their logbooks; standing in line just waiting for one of those flossy airline jobs back home. I’ll bet that fine reaches from Toronto to Winnipeg. ”
Maybe someone rubbed an old lamp in a bazaar on Legation Street. Maybe a Gini got loose somehow. Maybe Nancy back there in the office was
doing some high-pressure wishful thinking. It wouldn’t be anything Barney figured out.
Anyhow, out of the last plume of cigarette smoke came what looked like a break. It. was a bland-faced Joe in a white coat and black Canton pants modeled after a dried prune. He looked as though he’d been gypped out of his last, three meals and was just realizing what had happened to him. He pointed a yellow finger around the booth and said: “This is Mister Ballard of the flying machine.”
The No. 1 boy faded back as though he were moving around for a quarterback sneak and up to the line came a guy bigger than Camera and twice as ugly. He should have been thumbing the edge of a beheading sword with^a background of funeral music from wailing pipes and large gongs.
“I am General Kung Hui-moi,” the monster opened up. Then he tossed in a grin that brought out bis tusk detail. He turned and barked something about two more drinks and when be sat down he clanked.
“We will drink to the business,” the General said and grinned expansively. Rory figured the General had picked up the language maybe at some University. It was that sort, of English. Mid-West jargon that did nip-ups with the vowels. Not shirtlaundry English. He was a bulky Mongol type wadded into a baggy uniform that fitted like a leaky grain sack. On top of his face was a great fur cap and around him was strapped enough harness to keep a Percheron under control.
Rory wondered what Army he was in because he couldn’t figure any of the verdigrised ornaments he had loosely pinned about bis quilted toga. There was no mystery about one item, however. Kung sported a Mauser machine pistol half as big as a French 75. It hung under his chin like a lavaliere and there was enough leather in the holster to half-sole a landing barge.
“I have business for you, Mister Ballard,” Kung boomed, hauled in his paunch while the bar boy deposited the drinks and put on that tusky grin again. “Good business—for you.”
“I should know better,” Rory reflected while he stared down at his drink. “What sort of business?”
“A mission. How you say—mission of mercy!” the big Mongol beamed and reminded Rory of a newly cut cheese.
“Knock it off,” Rory said impatiently. “What sort of business?
“For our gallant troops—medical supplies.”
“Whose gallant troops?” Ballard demanded figuring the deal was sabotaged already.
“Mister Ballard !” the General gasped. “A cargo of medical supplies in support of our great cause.” Kung looked like a betrayed hippo about to burst into tears.
Rory studied the character for nearly a minute. “That line would go good, put to music,” he taunted. “Just where did all this mission of mercy stuff come from?”
“It is, or was, surplus stocks left in Burma. It is sorely needed in Hangchow, my friend.”
“I was a sucker for asking,” said Rory moodily. “Let’s have it in short takes. I fly a cargo of medical supplies to Hangchow, just foot plasters and hotwater bottles. No atomic bombs or gun cotton. That sort of a deal.”
“Exactly! A mission of mercy in which you should be proud to participate.”
Rory said: “Okay! Now what’s in it for me?
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remember. How much in dollars?” General Kung produced a wounded grimace that would have drawn tears from a bulldozer. The look curdled and became a benevolent smile.
“Ah, my friend,” the General whispered confidentially. “There is no money involved.”
“If that’s your idea of mercy, I’d hate to tangle with you when you get rough.”
“No money,” Kung repeated, “but something better. Something much more important.” He leaned forward confidentially. “You could perhaps use a C-54 bomber, eh Mister Ballard?”
SILENCE followed; silence with depth and body.
“A C-54 Skymaster transport? A four-engined job with wings and engines?” whispered Rory.
“Flown but seventy-two hours,” said the General. He consulted a slip of paper from his pocket and added the registration numbers.
“It’s not standing on its nose in a bog? Not in twenty feet of salt water?” “It stands on the airport at Hangchow. The minute you land that cargo of medical supplies . . .” The General stopped and put it this way. “Let’s arrange to exchange it for your twoengined plane. The C-54 is too big for any of our pilots to handle, but we could use a Dakota.”
Rory got a nudge from the gremlin of suspicion. “How’d that C-54 get there?” Kung had an answer for that too. “It was landed there—by mistake. It came in from the north and the Red pilot was lost. It was simply handed to us and we’ll exchange it with you in appreciation of our . . .”
“Who will?” demanded Rory.
The General wheezed and his fat fingers tried to entwine but co-ordination under the questioning was difficult. He tried another smile. “I will, Mister Ballard. I will go along and there can be no misunderstanding then. I personally will turn it over to you with all necessary papers, licenses and our good wishes.”
“For just one hop to Hangchow?” persisted Rory. “No funny business?” “Hangchow is a hospital area. You’ll simply be flying a mission of mercy.” “I don’t like one line of it,” Rory grumbled.
The General looked pained. “Standing idle up there it is no good to anyone. You can fly it, Mister Ballard, and later we can give you other business.”
That was enough for Rory. “Let’s go,” he said.
“Ah yes, but first we must have lunch, eh?” the grinning General
blustered and hauled Rory off to the dining room.
Y EH, BUT what Army is the guy in?” queried Barney when the full story had been explained. “I never seen a uniform like that an’ I bin collectin’ buttons an’ badges from every outfit I ever came up against.” “Just so long as that Skymaster flies,” Rory said, “he can wear the uniform of a Venezuelan vice-admiral.” Nancy Wick ware was preparing a manifest and there was new life and gaiety in her movements. A song in her heart and gentian blossoms in her
“With a ship like that you’ll be able to accept cargo all the way to Melbourne,” she said. “Darling, we’re on our way.”
“I could even fly you home for a wedding,” Rory was thinking. “Holy smoke! Nancy hasn’t been home since she came out here in ’43 with the M.O.I. What love won’t do to a gal!” Rory and Nancy had met in Singapore after the Nips had been chased out. They had made a deal to work it out, rack up a stack of currency and start out solvent. No love-on-a-dime racket. They planned to work out their financial problem before they got married. Have fun together, work like a couple of beavers and when they’d established a sound business—orange blossoms, a honeymoon that included everything; one they could enjoy while they were still young.
“When a guy starts handing out C-54’s like they wuz premiums for soap coupons,” Barney moaned, “I begin to wonder.”
“That baby has a payload of better than ten tons,” Rory said after playing with a paper and pencil.
“Is it China where they have the Death of a Thousand Cuts?” Barney asked grimly.
A six-wheeler rumbled around the hangar and pulled up beside Rory’s battered Dakota.
Barney growled: “I want to say ‘This is it’ but I still ain’t sure what
“Quit beefing! I can see you booking every minute you tool that C-54—in a very clear and precise hand,” Rory grinned.
General Kung dropped down from the truck and bellowed at the coolies peering over the tail gate. They began to unload. Rory crawled up into the cargo hull and supervised the loading. Nancy stood outside, slipped a carbon under the manifest sheet and checked the consignment.
All clear and aboveboard. Bandages, gauze, splints, vaccines, tannic-acid dressings, antiseptics, morphine and dispensary items. The same old stenciled addresses, the same old Red Cross markings, the same old battered corners on the cartons.
RORY went up front and communed with his engines. He saw Barney outside standing by with the fire extinguisher, so he kicked in the starters. While the old coffee grinders warmed up he sat there checking his gauges, figuring his take-off load and giving the flight chart a last look-see. It was 750 miles to Hangchow and if the weather held it wouldn’t be too rough a deal.
He felt the main cabin door slam and waited for Barney to come up front. He glanced outside again to take his wave from Nancy but the girl was not standing clear of the wing tip where she usually stood to blow him a kiss. Instead, he saw Barney backing away from under the wing, gesticulating wildly.
“Now what?” Rory pondered.
“Get under way,” a husky voice said from the co-pilot’s seat. “And no neck-twisting, Mister Ballard.” Rory turned and stared into the opening of the Windsor tunnel. That was the muzzle of Kung’s machine pistol. The big Mongol was sitting there and in the alley between the two seats stood Nancy. The girl was speechless, wild-eyed.
Ballard tried acting dumb. “Sure. Just as soon as Barney gets up here. They have flight rules, even in China, General.”
Nancy’s voice was strained and fear showed in her eyes. “He forced Barney off and dragged me aboard!”
Rory was trying to think, his nimble mind sorting the details and facts. He had a half a ton in the cargo hold. There was a big Mongol type in Barney’s seat playing bandit with a portable cannon. What was worse, Nancy was involved in the mess and she rated no part in the deal.
“Quit gagging, General,” he said, fumbling for time and an idea.
Kung shook his angry head and made circular movements with the roscoe. “There will be no co-pilot,” he said.
It wasn’t exactly cricket but the machine pistol carried authority.
“What’s the idea?” Rory tried again as Kung rammed the pistol into his armpit. “There are rules—even carrying military supplies.”
The long tapering barrel went in about three inches. “You will take off now, Mister Ballard!”
“What’s the story?” Rory asked Nancy. She had lost some of the initial shock and was trying to yank her wrist from Kung’s grip.
“Play it safe, Rory,” Nancy warned and steadied herself behind the pilot’s chair. “Go ahead and take off. I’ll see it through with you.”
“Okay sweetheart, but it’ll be n0 hay ride.”
WHEN they had clawed their way to 3,000 feet and were heading toward Canton, Rory tried again.
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