Part Three. Messenger
Chapter Nine. Corbin
We were chanting.
Years ago, chanting used to irritate me. It had seemed a needless relic of the Middle Ages. But I’d long since changed my mind about that, as about so many things. I’d discovered its virtues.
Partly we chant for the joy of the sound; partly, for the spiritual side effects to be had by losing ourselves in a chorus. The Latin chants in particular—which I once would have found highly irritating—I now found soothing, those ancient Latin words, sung of the beauty of God and God’s world. And blended in with the sounds were the smell of the incense, the rich colors of the tapestries, and the weight of the hymnal I myself had helped to manufacture the paper for, 11 years earlier.
I joined whole‑heartedly in the chant, yet from moment to moment I functioned, as well, as an outside observer, for there was something very pleasing in these faces. They were extremely strong faces, whether masculine or (in five cases) feminine. They were strong from the years of effort expended in overcoming temptation, the temptations that torture even those in monasteries:
Gluttony—even for an extra slice of bread;
Sloth—even for a few minutes’ extra rest on a warm cot when the night air was particularly cold;
Lust—for they are, after all, still human, with bodies that make angry demands on the wills that keep desires in check;
Anger—from any of the multitude of reasons provided by fellow voyagers known in every detail, known to a perfection not exceeded by the old whalers on their four‑years’ unbroken voyages.
And there were other temptations to fight against: envy, pride, etc. They had experienced them all, had battled them all and were battling still, years and decades into their strenuous life here. The effects of that long sustained effort showed on those beautiful childlike faces.
Childlike, not childish. There was something very open and trusting in those eyes that had concentrated so long on their own imperfections (rather than on those of others); eyes whose owners, for year on year, had trusted God to show them the way. Knowledge of sin had sobered them, but had neither defeated nor depressed them. Instead, it had encouraged them to abandon control of their lives to God, trusting God to bring them safely home at last, rather like Emerson:
As the bird trims her to the gale,
I trim myself to the storm of time,
I man the rudder, reef the sail,
Obey the voice at eve obeyed at prime:
“Lowly faithful, banish fear,
right onward drive unharmed;
The port, well worth the cruise, is near,
And every wave is charmed.“
Throughout our worship, I was aware of those faces, and of the souls behind them. And besides the observer, there was a part of me that split itself off to quietly taste my deep joy at this my home, the home I never would willingly have come to.
It was August. November would mark 17 years since I had been brought here. Nearly 17 winters on this cold mountainside. Seventeen of the almost unbearably poignant springs and autumns. Seventeen brief hot summers, of which the last was not quite completed. Seventeen years in which my parents had grown older—died, perhaps—knowing nothing of what had happened to me. Seventeen years in which my brothers and sisters had grown up, and Marianne had lived from youth to middle age. But all things had their price, and there had never been a thing I could do about it. On the other hand, it had been 17 years of one deepening relationship, one overwhelming reality. I was content. I was home. I had penetrated to life’s deepest joy.
And just about that time—as life would have it—there came the sound and the jarring of a terrific impact, as though some giant had swung a hammer against the side of the mountain.
The chant stopped instantly, the monks looking at each other wide‑eyed. It had not been an earthquake, but an impact, and impacts are made by things hitting other things. Our world is without the machinery which “civilization” takes for granted: railroad trains, highway traffic, airplanes, motors of any kind. They simply don’t exist. So what could have caused the noise and the jarring? We had reason to stare. But then the eldest of us calmly resumed the chant, and we joined in with him, though our concentration was not what it had been.
The chant finished, another began. Though the earth broke up or the stars fell down around us, we would continue to stand and chant to the end of the hour, partly out of obedience, partly out of long‑ingrained routine, but mostly out of conviction that prayer is more important than the things of the moment, however unusual. But as I entered into the second chant, I felt a light pressure on my elbow, and turned to see Mr. Barnard, who leaned close and said, quietly, “Come quick.”
It took but a moment to make our way through the rows of monks, and then we were moving quickly through the hallway, I nearly blinded by the midday sun through the windows, after the incense‑laden darkness of the chapel.
“Something up your alley, George,” Mr. Barnard said. “Airplane crash.”
I glanced at him, my heart an indescribable mixture of incredulity, excitement, and fear. “Whose?” Could it possibly be American, after all this time?
“Didn’t get a look at the markings. Didn’t even see it until it had dropped down between the mountains. The blamed thing came shooting by practically at window level. One minute it was in front of me, and the next minute it slammed into the side of the mountain a little farther on.”
“Good God! Did it burn? What do you think the chances are that anybody’s still alive?”
“Didn’t burn right off. Couldn’t say what the chances are. You’re going to tell me, I hope, if we can get there quick enough.” We hurried through a door and were out on one of the patios that overlooked the descending slopes. “See it?”
“No.” Then, following his outstretched arm down the slope and off to the left, I did. “Well, it isn’t burning yet, that’s something. But how are we going to get down to it?”
“I sent a couple chelas off for some rope, if we need it. Let’s see how close we can get.”
Mr. Barnard had the body of a 55‑year‑old man, and he had spent 20 years of his adult life in boardrooms and offices, but he had been a mining engineer in his youth, and had somehow retained the muscles his early life had given him. I found myself having to hurry to keep up with him as we picked our way down the steep slope.
We were able to get within about 50 feet of the smashed aircraft before we were stopped by an almost vertical descent, with no way down except by rope. My eyes went not to the cockpit, but immediately to the one undamaged wing. What I saw there chilled me, even in the August midday sun. “Chinese, Mr. Barnard,” I said desperately. “We’re dead.”
His face was a study in dismay. I’m sure mine was too. Even when you’ve been waiting for it, it takes you by surprise. Year after year of lookouts and vigilance, year after year of reprieves, until you begin to relax, thinking that the old man’s prophecy might yet come true—at least, the part about the monastery surviving—and then all of a sudden the end come crashing down out of the sky, and you are compelled by your own values to go to the aid of the men who would wind up destroying you.
But, first things first. We’d have to see if anybody inside was alive. I looked down at the twisted airframe. It had hit at an angle, bellying in. The tail was intact, but most of the nose and much of the left side had smashed themselves into the rock of the mountain. Half the left wing was gone; looking back, I could see at least a twisted portion of the end of it, several hundred feet away. A hundred feet above the fragments I could see the scarred rock that had snagged and broken it. I wondered how securely the wreck was perched. I wondered how much movement would be required to start it sliding, then tumbling. I made a mental note to move cautiously.
Three chelas arrived, carrying a coiled hemp rope.
Mr. Barnard had said nothing since I’d pointed out the markings. “Let’s take a look at that rope,” he said now. But, hoping to avoid an argument, I’d already taken the end of the rope and tied it around myself. “You three stand by to help me get up if need be,” I said. “Let’s get that other end secured.”
The chelas bent the rope around a boulder (there being nothing else to fasten it to, so far above the tree line) and stood ready to haul against my weight. Mr. Barnard said, “Here, lad, I can see it makes sense for you to go instead of me, you being younger and lighter, but how about one of them instead? They’re as sure‑footed as cats.”
“I’m all set, Mr. Barnard. And what do they know about jet planes?”
“About as much as I do,” he said, nodding. “Okay. Keep your eye on the ball, going down.”
“Yeah. Let me get down there fast, before this thing decides to blow.” The expression on his face, as I saw it before lowering myself down, was almost comical in its sudden change from mild worry to active alarm. His experience with airplanes had never been all that extensive, and of course he knew nothing at all about jets.
I walked myself down the 70‑degree slope backwards, rapidly, hand over hand, using the rope to balance myself. In half a minute I was at the wreck, standing by the nose. It was a big plane, big enough to hold ten men or more. In fact, I suddenly realized that I recognized it: It was an American airframe, a Buffalo.
When I’m under stress, I talk to myself. Argue, too, sometimes. I asked myself, “What are the Chinese doing riding around in American planes?”
I disengaged myself from the rope and quickly went entirely around the part of the airplane that was not smashed against rock, looking for a way in, finding nothing. “There’s the door, but that’s not going to open from the outside. Looks like I’d better find something smashed, which sounds like the cockpit windows.”
The windows were indeed smashed. “Well, I guess it’s this or nothing, and time’s a’wastin’, as Snuffy Smith used to say. Let’s see if I can’t get in there.” Biting my lip, knowing that the wreck could burst into flames or explode at any time, I got up my nerve, used a stone to smash out the remaining shards of glass around the frame, and climbed inside. There was a smell of kerosene: strong, but not overpowering. “Not great odds, but I suppose they could be worse,” I told myself.
To get in, I had to force my way past the bodies, practically stepping on one of them. Pretty grisly. I tried not to look too closely at pilot or co‑pilot. Both were obviously Chinese, and both were more than obviously dead. “Never knew what hit them,” I said, “which is trite. And true.”
I worked the latch of the door to the main compartment, but couldn’t get it open. Twisted. I put my foot against it, still holding the latch open, and kicked. Two kicks and the door bounded away from me.
I stepped carefully into the passageway. Dark inside, with the electricity gone and only a little light filtering in from one unblocked window. My first impression was that the area was entirely filled with machinery. My mind was entirely filled with the smell of jet fuel. I decided I wasn’t risking my life for papers and machinery. “If this baby happens to still be here in an hour or so, we’ll take another look,” I said. “But for now, this is more than good enough.”
But as I started to turn back, I noticed a single seat, set in among the machinery, with a body sitting slumped forward, held in the seat only by the seatbelt. The man wore a flight suit, but no flying helmet. Instead, he wore headphones attached to the instruments he had apparently been monitoring. There was a gash on the back of the head where some of the coarse black hair had been scraped off in a collision with something hard.
“If you’d had a helmet on, instead of that headset, you wouldn’t have gotten that bump on the noggin, buddy,” I said. It took only a moment to get to him; between the time I moved and the time I got my hands on his shoulders, I realized that he was alive. I pushed back his head—carefully—and gasped. The man was definitely not Chinese, but Western. American, in fact—though I couldn’t have said how I knew that.
“Wonderful,” I said. “And alive, too.” I put my fingers against his throat, felt a strong pulse. “Okay, Benedict Arnold, let’s get you out of here before we both go to glory and I have to explain to Saint Peter why I’m in bad company.” Flippant words, to give myself courage. How in the world could I drag an unconscious man, bigger than myself, through that cockpit window? (Besides which, my stomach turned over at the thought of again climbing over the body of that pilot.) “Nothing to be done, though. That’s the way in, that’s the way out. And let’s get a move on.” But then I remembered, and looked around in the gloom until I found the door in the side.
“Possible? Well, this part of the fuselage isn’t all twisted up. C’mon, baby, don’t be jammed.” I put my hands on the lever and applied pressure, prepared to put my entire weight into it. Anticlimactically, it moved readily, and daylight streamed into the cabin as the door swung open. Moving as quickly as I could, I unbelted the man and dragged him to the edge of the airframe.
“Hope you don’t have any broken bones, boy. I sure can’t see leaving you here till the ambulance comes.” I jumped down three feet to the ground, then reached up and pulled him out by the armpits. I didn’t like letting his legs drop to the ground, but he was far too heavy for me to carry. As a desperate expedient, I put both arms around his chest and backed a little away from the airframe; one leg slid out, and I was able to get my own leg underneath it in time to somewhat ease it down. I did the same for the other leg—not very gracefully, as he was really more than I could handle—and let him slip to the ground. I went around to where I could see Mr. Barnard looking down.
“What do you need, there, George? Anybody alive?”
“Just one live one. I’m going to tie the rope under his arms and have you pull him up. He’s injured, and probably we shouldn’t be moving him, but it sure isn’t safe here! Do you think the three of you can get him up there without banging him around too badly?”
“Wait. Let’s try to get him up on a stretcher. There’s five of us now.” Lobsang, one of the chelas, came lowering himself quickly down a rope.
“Look out below!” came Mr. Barnard’s voice, and I looked up to see another rope on its way down, with poles and a roll of cloth tied to the end. It got stuck, but a yank on the line from above freed it.
Lobsang and I got to the injured man. He was still breathing. We stretched out the cloth, set the poles out atop it, parallel to each other, and folded the cloth over the poles so that the weight of the man’s body would hold the frame together. Then we laid him on it and walked him around the airplane to where we could see the men above. There we found that Thubten had come down, and stood there holding the ends of two more ropes from the ledge above, and another, shorter rope.
“George, if you don’t have any better ideas, what do you think about tying him in and tying those other ropes to the ends of the stretcher? Then we can haul in on you two, and help you bear the weight too.”
Good old Mr. Barnard: always thinking. “Sure, let’s go before the real excitement starts.”
Thubten went hurrying back up his line, and made ready to help the others pull. I looked at Lobsang, we checked each other’s knots in the lines we had tied around our chests, and he gave the signal for the men above to start pulling.
Leaning far out away from the cliff, using the tension on the ropes maintained from above to help neutralize the man’s weight, we were able to keep our footing on the steep slope, and guide the stretcher so that it didn’t hit. In almost no time, the thing was done, and the chelas were hurrying the stretcher to the monastery’s small infirmary.
I said, “Mr. Barnard, you sure do think fast.”
He grinned. “That’s from years of watching the tape and working on borrowed money. Good work down there, Tom Mix. Now let’s get out of here.”
Picking our way, moving as fast as we could, we got back to the buildings. At the door, I halted, looking back at the airplane, and Mr. Barnard stood with me.
“I don’t see any sign of fire. I’m beginning to think I was a little hasty in there. If that guy has any internal injuries, I may have really messed him up.”
Mr. Barnard shrugged his shoulders. “I suppose so, but it couldn’t be helped. That thing could have blown up and he’d be dead, and you with him. I think you did darned well getting him out of there at all.” We stood there, unable to stop looking at the wreckage. “Who do you suppose he is?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t have a lot of time for introductions.”
Mr. Barnard grinned. “I mean what country is he from, as you know darned well. I didn’t get much of a look at him, but he sure wasn’t Chinese. Russian, do you suppose?”
“Could be. I got the feeling he was American, for some reason. I don’t know why.”
“Well, if he comes to, we’ll have some questions for him. If he don’t, maybe we’ll learn something when we go through his pockets.”
We stood looking at the wreckage. “George, you said that thing could still blow up. How long till we can figure it ain’t going to?”
“Hard to say. Every minute that goes by, helps. With all those kerosene fumes, and the heat, and the impact, the time for her to go would have been right after she hit. I suppose I’d give it another half hour or so, just to be on the safe side.”
“Think you could stand to go back in there?”
“Looking for clues, you mean? Sure. It’ll be a lot easier, with the door open. Mr. Barnard, what happened?”
“The only thing I know, I was standing out here, having a smoke, and I heard the lookout call, and I looked over and about swallowed my cigar. This thing came in here—I just can’t tell you how fast it came tearing through. One second it wasn’t there, and then it was, and then it piled into the side of the mountain there.”
“It looks like it scraped a wingtip against that point there, and broke it off.”
He closed his eyes with the effort of visualizing. “Yeah, maybe. It looked to me like something pushed them sideways, almost, and they broke off the end of the wing, like you said. We ought to be able to find a considerable scar on the rocks down over about there. You can see that’s quite a ways from where it finally hit. The wing hit, but the thing went right on, except its head came up and it faltered, like, and then blam! down she came.”
“I get the picture, I think. They were flying down here, where they didn’t have any business being in a big tub like that. All it took was a little gust, and they clipped the side. When they tried to recover, the pilot stalled it, or maybe another gust hit them. Or maybe he’d lost too much control surface. But what was he doing flying so low in the first place?”
“Well, my lad, I don’t think that’s so hard to figure out. I’d say they were way up, and happened to see the green of the valley. Probably they were coming in to look at it when they saw our buildings here. Probably they came in for a closer look, and maybe the pilot did two seconds’ sight‑seeing too many.”
“They came in too close, too fast, and ran out of room,” I said. “That sounds about right.”
Still we stood looking over at the remains of the intruder.
“We’ll have to get the bodies buried,” I said. “I didn’t tell you, the pilot and co‑pilot were Chinese.”
He nodded. “Red Chinese markings, it didn’t matter all that much if the pilots were Chinese or more hired help like our friend on the stretcher. Big trouble either way. I just hope they didn’t have time to get on the radio to their friends back home.”
I hadn’t thought of that. We stood in silence.
“Mr. Barnard, what are we going to do?”
Mr. Barnard seemed to shake himself awake, like a dog shaking himself dry. (Later, I decided that we’d both been a mild state of shock, like the time I’d crashed my U‑2.) “Well, first thing, we’re going to get that big `Kick Me’ sign off our front lawn.”
“You want us to strip it, I imagine.”
“Darned right! We’re going to want every piece of machinery, all the papers, everything you can get out of that baby. Then if we have time, we want to take it apart and bring it all inside, or bury it somehow. We’ve got to get it covered.”
“Okay. You know, half an hour is probably more than I need. Let’s say a few minutes.”
“No, take your half hour. You’ll need it getting things organized. I’ll ask the boss if we can get everybody in the house, and more from downstairs. We’ve got to get moving.”
People who think monks are unworldly should see them respond to an emergency. Within minutes, Mr. Barnard had detailed two of our young helpers from the valley to be my go‑fers, and had sent another down the long path to the valley. While he went to appraise Mr. Conway and others of the situation, I tried to think of everything we might need.
“We will need ropes, Kesang, and winches. You know winches? Good. We will need many hands to lift heavy things. Gompo, we need the cutting machine. You know? Mr. Barnard’s machine that uses fire to cut metals?”
“Torch,” he said, nodding vigorously. “Many times Mr. Barnard use it. Many sparks.”
“Yes.” I was glad Gompo knew what I was talking about. My Tibetan doesn’t extend to technical terms or machinery. “You get the torch, please. Bring it on a cart. Kesang, we will need work carts. You might as well use the other for the ropes and tools. Bring the big toolbox.” The carts were something Mr. Barnard and I had put together a few years before. We’d mounted two heavy wooden wheels, fore and aft, beneath a platform four foot wide by eight foot long. With steady hands at the handles at all corners, the carts could be made to negotiate our rough trails without overturning.
I sent off Gompo and Kesang, and rehearsed the operation in my mind. God, I’d forgotten the very first thing and my go‑fers had already been dispatched. But here were the rest of the monks, ready (despite being very senior to me) to do my bidding. They could make up for my lack of foresight. I asked five of them to bring the special hose and every container they could find, and meet me where Mr. Barnard had recently stood above the wreck. I told them to check with him if they couldn’t find the hose.
At the same time I got back there, Thubten arrived, carrying the ropes we’d used earlier. He and I usually worked well together, being able to read one another’s intentions from the slightest of clues. Without my needing to say a word, he began handing a line around the boulder we’d used before. This time I didn’t bother to knot it around my waist, but merely passed it around me and held it.
“As soon as I’m down there, try to find a way to anchor some line, Thubten. Many more coming, much to lift. As three arrive, send down one. Keep the strongest one with you. Send Gompo and Kesang down with the tools they bring.” Thubten, bless him, never needed repetition. I could forget my instructions as soon as I gave them.
The Buffalo, looked at with a view toward dismantling it, seemed to have grown monstrously. First things first: Where were the fuel tanks? More important, where were the bleeder valves? The jet‑fuel smell had gone away. Good sign. And here was Mr. Barnard, hurrying down the path that ended above my head, leading a procession of workers.
I was the expert on jet planes; he was the expert on efficient organization. I could let him take care of that end of matters, as long as I got my few down here. I went over to where I could call up to him.
“Mr. Barnard!” Even as I called, five chelas were climbing down the steep slopes at the end of ropes held by their fellows. “I need the containers first. We’ve got to get the fuel out of here before we do any cutting.”
“I’ve got ‘em working on it,” he called down. “Got ‘em tying hooks to the end of a couple of the ropes. You just hook the cans on and we’ll take it from there.”
Sometime I’ll have to ask him where we’d gotten so many five‑gallon gas cans. In the long years of shipments before 1937, I suppose, though they look pretty new for that. Six empty cans tied to the end of a rope came down on us, those above jerking the ropes when the cans caught. Kesang got to the cans and untied them, and we went back to the wreck.
“Gompo, call for some more men down here. Go inside through that door. Get everything out from inside. Don’t break things, but don’t lose time. Okay?”
“Oh, sure, very much okay,” he said placidly. If the world burned down, Gompo would be sure to see it, but he wouldn’t hurry to get a better seat. Kesang and Tserang and I got wrenches and started bleeding off the fuel.
When next I looked around, I saw what seemed to be a giant cargo net being hauled up, eight brawny chelas straining at the ropes. I didn’t see it, but I imagined Mr. Barnard organizing the men into teams—eight to wheel each cart, a few more to load them (and others on the other end to unload them) and many more to carry or pass material along bucket‑brigade style.
We’d sent up perhaps 30 cans when he came down to see how we were doing. “Much more in there, do you suppose?”
I straightened up, resting my back, which was already cramped and sore. “Yeah, I’d think so. This thing’s full of fuel. Are we going to have room enough for it?”
“Oh, Lord yes. We can empty out the wine tubs and put it in there, if we have to. You’re looking at gold here. I just need to know about how much.”
“That, I can’t tell you. This isn’t my plane. But I can tell you right there”—pointing at the extra fuel tanks— “this thing was designed to go long distances.“
“Those tanks’ll come in handy. Maybe we can get ‘em up full.”
“Do you think so? That would sure save a lot of work. Time, too.”
“Yeah. But can you get ‘em off without having to use the torch? If you can’t we’ll just do it the hard way.”
I left Kesang and Tserang with the siphon and cans, sent them two reinforcements, and went to look over the tanks. “I guess if you’ve got the right size wrenches, we ought to be able to do it.”
“We got ‘em,” Mr. Barnard grunted. “Made sure of that 40 years ago.”
“We’re going to have to put some supports under them while we work. They’re going to be heavy.”
“You get ‘em off the plane and I’ll worry about getting ‘em home.”
And somehow he did. Not only got the awkward, heavy fuel tanks swayed up to the trail above, but got them securely fastened on carts never intended for such loads, then shepherded the carts back to the monastery and got the tanks safely to rest in a hastily cleared basement storeroom.
And, I learned a couple hours later, between organizing and supervising those operations (a good day’s work in itself), he had somehow thought of, suggested, and generally made possible another surprise for me. Sunnie and some of the frail or elderly monks, unable to assist in fetching and carrying, had nonetheless made themselves useful. Down to the valley had gone the call for all the cloth available. As it arrived, they’d basted strips together. My parachute, I noticed, reappeared after all these years, along with the three from the Buffalo’s crew.
“Camouflage,” Mr. Barnard said proudly as the massive bundle arrived at the plane. “I figured that it might take us a while to cut that thing up and haul it away.”
“Mr. Barnard, I’m speechless. That’s terrific. But we’re going to have to paint it.”
“Already taken care of,” he said a little smugly, enjoying my stupefaction. “Many hands make light work.”
I shook my head, lost in admiration. Then Mr. Barnard was directing several people at once, getting the bundle down the slope, getting it unfolded without tangles, getting it draped loosely over the entire superstructure, getting it anchored it all around with stones, except for the areas where an unending line of hose still continued to empty the dead bird’s tanks.
“The only thing is,” I said to him when next we both had a minute, “radar would see right through this netting. I suppose all this rock will protect us, but I don’t know what new gadgets they’ve invented. We may be just wasting our time here. Especially if they had this thing locked into a homing beam of some kind.”
“Any way to know for sure?”
“Not really. It could be in the nose, all smashed up. Or it could be something new that I wouldn’t recognize. And you know,” I said, struck by the obvious for the first time, “they probably had this baby on their radar screens when she came down.” I laughed at the back‑breaking, single‑minded work we had done. Working before thinking. Most untypical of Shangri‑la! “Mr. Barnard, if they had this ship on their radar, they know just where to start looking. And if they start close, they won’t have to find the wreck. They won’t be able to miss the buildings.”
“I already thought of that. It goes in the category of things you don’t worry over because you can’t do a thing about ‘em. Anyway, it ain’t a sure thing.”
He could see I didn’t follow his reasoning. “Look, if we leave this thing here and they come by, they know for sure they’re in the right place, and they stop looking. But if they come over here and see us—see the buildings, I mean—maybe they’re thinking that ain’t what they’re supposed to be looking for, and they don’t report it. Or maybe they report it and the word comes back to keep looking for what they’re supposed to be looking for. You stop and think about it. The big boss in Peking or somewhere sends out some airplanes looking for one that’s maybe crashed. They don’t even know for sure it did crash, you know. Maybe in the back of their minds they’re wondering did he take it on the lam. So that’s got ‘em wondering. Now, if they get a call on the radio says `we found some old buildings way the hell up the side of a mountain,’ how are they going to react? Are they going to say, `Well, that explains it’? In the first place, they ain’t even going to know for sure there’s people living here—not unless we get real unlucky and they come over while we’re still here swarming like bees. Even if their man on the radio sees us, are they necessarily going to believe him? And if they do, I still say, why should they connect us and the airplane?
“And last,” he said before turning away to be pulled back up the slope, “remember this. Even if they get the report and they believe the report, who’s to know it ain’t something everybody else already knows about? You know the communists don’t go encouraging a lot of individual thinking. Hell, for all we know, we been discovered a dozen times already, but everybody figured what he just found out, everybody else already knew.”
Finally, long after sunset, we finished extracting the last bit of fuel from the main tanks. (With the right tools, the job would have been pretty easy. Working the way we had to, it was a killer.) When the last can was swayed up, I motioned for a rope and followed it up.
“Mr. Barnard, I’ve been thinking about what you said, and it makes a lot of sense. Tell you what: Get some food sent down and get me a couple of helpers and I can start working on cutting up the frame tonight. The shroud ought to hide the sparks, if I can work without setting it on fire.” I accompanied that with a smile, but it wasn’t much of a smile. I was tired!
Mr. Barnard’s smile was tired too, but he clasped me firmly on the shoulder. “That’s a handsome offer, lad, but I already worked it out. You stick around to tell us where not to cut, and I guess Conway and me can pretty near get it. He’s fresh, you know. All day long, he’s had the easy part, keeping things organized inside. So he can go first while you and me rest, and then I’ll do some and little by little we’ll get it. Or, say, I’ll tell you what. Why don’t you scare up some chalk and mark where we ought to cut? Then we won’t waste any time later. You understand, we want pieces as big as possible. More useful later, and anyway, bigger pieces means fewer cuts.”
As always, I was impressed by his foresight and energy. I turned to go back down. Knowing I was tired, and not wanting to take chances, I was tying myself in, rather than merely holding the rope, when he had to add, “Oh, and George? I didn’t forget your grub. First things first with you, I know.” I was still grinning about it a few minutes later when he and Mr. Conway were swayed down to begin work.
But then there were two dead pilots to be cut out of their twisted tomb, and a long night’s monotonous, wearing work cutting up the tell‑tale airframe, converting it into resources for future use. By the time we finished, the summer sunshine was not far behind, and I was ready to sleep on the rocks until Mr. Conway suggested that I would be in the way. So I came in, to fall into exhausted sleep, while others finished removing the traces.