ASSEMBLING AN AEROPLANE IN THE DESERT

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Weston explained that the old man was known in the camp only as Utah
Banning. For years he had been too old for any active work. No one
knew how he managed to exist. On the edge of the town, furthest from
the river, he lived alone in an adobe hut. Roy was disturbed by what
had happened, but when Weston told him this was the old man’s nightly
experience, the boy tried to dismiss the incident.

On the way to their boarding house, Weston pointed out the office of
the Utah Mining and Development Company. It was a one-story building,
covered with tin pressed in imitation of stone, with a large enclosed
yard in the rear. As they passed the dark structure, it was almost like
meeting an old friend to read on the big, plate-glass window the words,
“R. C. Cook, Manager,” in brilliant gold letters.

“Them fellers,” remarked Weston, in passing, “don’t make no great
splurge, but they’re the Rothchilds er the Stan’ard Oil Company er the
Pierpont Morgans o’ this land. An’ when ye speak o’ the firm yer goin’
to work fur, ye don’t have to say nothin’ but ‘Company’–ever’body
knows.”

Weston and Roy were just finishing a hot breakfast of tortillas and
chili-con-carne about eight o’clock the next morning–the boarding
house was an adobe structure with an interior court and conducted in
Mexican style–when there was a clutter of pony hoofs on the sandy
street without and an energetic, middle-aged man, much better dressed
than those Roy had seen the night before, came striding into the court
where the new arrivals were dining.

“Well, Sink,” he exclaimed in a quick, pleasant voice, “thought you’d
surprise me, eh? Howdy?”

He reached out his hand, and looked inquiringly at Roy.

“Had to come on business,” answered Weston, with a chuckle. “Brung my
friend hyar. I kind o’ thought I’d stay awhile lessen ye’ve changed yur
mind.”

“Job’s open. Glad to have you,” added the newcomer. “Heard you blew in
last night–from one o’ the boys.”

“Shake hands with Mr. Osborne,” interrupted Weston, by way of
introducing Roy and the stranger. “Roy, this is Mr. Cook, o’ the
‘Company.’”

The boy sprang forward and clasped Mr. Cook’s hand vigorously.

“I see you don’t know who I am,” he exclaimed with a smile. “I reckon
they didn’t send you word. I’ve been sent out here by Mr. Atkinson, of
the American Aeroplane Company, to work for you.”

Mr. Cook almost dropped his hat. Stuffing it under his arm, he clasped
Roy’s hand in both his and then patted him on the back.

“Well, sir, my boy, those are about the welcomest words I’ve heard in a
long time. I’m sure glad to see you. And you’ve got your machine with
you?”

Weston smiled and answered for Roy:

“That’s what brung me, Colonel. Old Doolin’s got her down to the
corral.”

“You don’t say so,” exclaimed Manager Cook. “The whole danged shebang?”

“Everything,” said Roy, laughing. “And I’m glad to meet you. I’m ready
to get busy, too. I’ve been a long time gettin’ here.”

“The whole business?” went on Mr. Cook, as if the news was too good to
be true.

“If it isn’t,” said Roy, with another smile, “I’ll be pretty well
disappointed.”

“Well, sir,” went on Mr. Cook, looking at Roy again and patting him on
the back, almost affectionately, “you’re about ten or fifteen years
younger than I thought you’d be.” Then he sobered, suddenly. “They told
you what the work was, did they?”

“I understand, perfectly,” answered Roy. “I can do it.”

“That’s the talk,” snapped Mr. Cook. “Come,” he added, glancing around
at the rather squalid courtyard. “Let’s go over to the office and talk
it over. Where’s your baggage?” he added, turning to Roy.

“Down at the corral.”

“Well, don’t send it here. You’ll bunk with me. Sink,” he went on,
“what d’you mean by steerin’ the boy up against this?” He pointed to
the Mexican food.

“I enjoyed it,” exclaimed Roy, smiling.

Mr. Cook sniffed.

“You think you did, youngster. But you’ll find out later that it ain’t
fit for white men. Sink’s been here so long he ain’t really white any
more,” continued Mr. Cook, with a dig at Weston’s ribs; “but that’s no
reason why he should poison you. Keep them things out o’ your system
as long as you can. Let’s vamose!”

There was only a short stop at the company’s office, and then all went
at once to the corral. But the stay in the company headquarters was
long enough to show Roy that he had become connected with no small
company. Roy presented his letter of introduction and another from Mr.
Atkinson, the president of the aeroplane company, in reference to Roy’s
expenses and compensation.

“No trouble about that,” exclaimed Mr. Cook impulsively. “But we won’t
stop to thresh over figures this morning. When you get time,” he said
to Roy, “make out a statement of all your expenses, and I’ll include
the amount in our check to the company. The salary is all right. You
won’t find much use for money down here. But, whenever you need any,
let me know.”

Roy assured him he had plenty of cash on hand.

“You’re goin’ to stop with us awhile, aren’t you, Sink?” inquired Mr.
Cook as they left the office.

“Might as well, I reckon. What’s up?”

Mr. Cook paused, looked first at Weston and then at Roy.

“Plenty adoin’,” he answered. “Glad to see both of you. I can use you
right away. You recollect Lang Rury? Well, he’s been up on Montezuma
Creek east of the Blue Mountains just this side of Abaja Peak ’bout two
months. He’s got some copper ’at’s runnin’ fair an’ he’s got a patch o’
pine timber ’at’s worth more I reckon. But when Rury gets goin’ after
copper, you can’t depend much on his judgment ’bout timber. If the
timber’s all right, I want to buy it and run it down to the San Juan.
You go and find out.”

Copper or cattle, timber or trailing were all alike to Weston. He was
to start the next day, using a company horse and pack mule. Doolin was
to return to Dolores with the two ponies and the wagon as soon as a
load of freight accumulated. This meant cattle hides.

“Well,” said Roy, at last, as he and his companions came upon old Dan,
who reclined comfortably in the shade of the wagon drawing on his pipe,
“there it is. Shall we unload here?”

“Not much,” answered Mr. Cook, as he eyed the laden wagon with
interest. “I’ve been gettin’ ready for you. Your headquarters are back
of the office–that’s the Aeroplane Express depot.”

Doolin and Weston soon had the horses harnessed and before nine o’clock
the creaking wagon was in position in the corral back of the Company
office. In a shed at one side was stored grain and feed, for the
Company issued supplies of this sort direct from headquarters. Mr. Cook
had made a side excursion on the way back and secured Bluff’s only
metal-worker–the camp horseshoer.

“Now,” said Roy, shaking hands with Chris. Hagerman, the mechanic, “I
guess Chris. and Dan and I can begin work.”

“Trying to get rid of us,” laughed Mr. Cook. “Don’t you believe it. I’m
going to see that airship unpacked and put together, if the whole works
have to stop.”

“What’d ye suppose I come fur?” added Weston. “Fur a dollar a mile? And
more,” he added for Mr. Cook’s apparent benefit, “I ain’t startin’ fur
no timber patch till she’s flew, neither.”

“Good,” shouted Roy. “We’ll all get to work.”

By noon the corral looked like a cross between a hardware store and a
sail loft. There was a high mesquite fence around the lot, but that by
no means shut out visitors. The news of Roy’s advent had spread over
town, and, since a man only visits Bluff to loaf, the quickly assembled
audience soon lined the fence.

After examining the enclosure, Roy explained to Mr. Cook that it was by
no means large enough to make a start from or a landing in. The manager
at once put a squad of men at work removing the mesquite posts forming
the fence at the far end of the corral. At first, the boy thought it
would be well to erect a shed to shelter the aeroplane. Then he changed
his mind about this. In the summer it seldom rained, and it was not
improbable that the airship would be employed in the field quite as
much as it would be resting in the corral.

The precious gasoline was stored in the feed shed. The precaution in
bringing such a quantity of this was a wise one. And yet, before Doolin
set out on his return trip to Dolores, Mr. Cook gave him an order to be
telegraphed to Denver for a duplicate supply which Doolin was to bring
out later in the summer, if needed.

The unloading of the aeroplane was a joy to Roy. As each box and crate
was eased from the wagon by twice as many hands as were necessary, it
was checked off in the little red book. Nor was a single box opened
until every item was accounted for. Then the precise and careful young
manager went to the further extreme of arranging each lot in proper
numerical order.

All the crates and boxes were fastened with screws. There was no
knocking and banging of nailed boards. The spruce section posts, struts
and connecting strips came first. As these aluminum-covered, exactly
finished parts came out of their protecting canvas covers, it was no
longer possible to restrain the curious plainsmen. With a tinkle of
sounding spurs, there was a concerted rush, and Roy had to appease the
crowd by holding up a couple of long, slender strips.

“That’s it, gentlemen,” he said, laughing. “That’s part of the airship.
This afternoon we’ll join ’em. Now, let’s all go and eat.”

“Would you believe it?” asked Mr. Cook, as the crowd good-naturedly
took its leave and Roy and his friends made ready for the noonday meal.
“But the boys are sort o’ hungry for something besides faro and whisky.
I’m glad it amuses ’em.”

“That’s nothing,” remarked Roy. “If you’d open up that outfit in the
streets of New York or Chicago, the people’d tramp each other to death
to get a sight of it. Everybody’s crazy about airships. And I’ve got it
bad,” he concluded, laughing.

Mr. Cook took the entire “aeroplane crew” to his own house, having
previously sent word to his cook. He was a bachelor, but he was not
“roughing it” in his home life. A Jap cook gave them a meal without a
single Mexican dish–native beef and excellent bread and a pie made
with “canned” peaches.

Then came the real work on the aeroplane. By sundown the two sections
across which the planes extended, one behind the other, had been put
together, bolted, and wired. Beneath these, the long and delicate but
stout landing and starting skids had been attached. In a moment of rest
Roy explained to Mr. Cook a detail that Mr. Atkinson and his father
had taken the liberty to add to the ordinary aeroplane such as the
Development Company had bought.

Model No. 1 was planned to start, practically, from the ground without
track or wheels. But this presupposed ideal conditions–a smooth
surface and the assistance of attendants. Realizing that the aeroplane
would often face far from ideal conditions in both starting and
landing and that it would be mainly where there would be no one to
assist in either starting or landing, Roy’s father had sent with the
airship a set of starting wheels. Four of these, small pneumatic-tired
rubber wheels, were arranged for automatic attachment to the ends
of each skid. They were light and, when not needed, could be easily
detached.

“I’ll take ’em with me,” said Roy, “but I’ll not need ’em in starting
from this place. These boys,” and he looked toward the still patiently
waiting and curious spectators, “could pitch me over the San Juan.”

To the rear of the sections, the big white semi-circular rudder had
also been attached–although the taut stretching of the silk cover
of this had been a tedious job–and the rudder control wires were in
place. When work concluded that evening, the aeroplane was far from
assembled.

Mr. Cook laughed.

“I thought the company advertised that this airship could be taken
apart in two hours,” he said.

“It does,” answered Roy, “and it can. But you can’t put it together
in two hours. However, it wouldn’t take so long if we hadn’t taken
everything apart. Usually the long planes are left in wide sections. I
wanted to be sure, so I took everything apart.”

“Good for you,” exclaimed Mr. Cook; “but I’m glad you’re here to get it
together again. How long will it take to finish the job to-morrow?”

“All day. The silk plane covers fit like a woman’s dress, and they’ve
got to be ‘just so’. Then the planes must be leveled and braced like
a yacht’s rigging–only more so. And then comes the engine, the
shafts and truing ’em up and last the propellers, to say nothin’ of
the cooling coils, the fuel tank, the operator’s seat and the control
stirrup–”

“Come on,” interrupted Mr. Cook, with a pretended groan. “Let’s go home
and rest.”

After supper, Weston and Doolin disappeared on programs of their own,
but Roy had had a thing on his mind all day that prevented him from
settling down to rest at once. Mr. Cook’s one luxury on the plains
was a good cigar. He had hardly lit his after supper smoke before
Roy broached the matter about which he had been bothering. What had
happened to old Utah Banning the night before he could not help but
feel was partly due to him.

He related the details of the episode to Mr. Cook. He had wanted to do
it all day, but Weston had almost persuaded him that it was no affair
of his and that the old “bum” had probably experienced the same thing
scores of times. But Mr. Cook was vastly more sympathetic. He entered
at once into a full discussion of the matter.

“He probably wanted whisky for the full amount,” suggested Mr. Cook.
“Anyway, it was likely an unprovoked assault. If you like, we’ll go and
find out.”

It was just what Roy did want, and with Mr. Cook drawing slowly on his
fragrant weed, he and the boy set out for Saloon Row.