Murdock tipped the nose of the plane up and landed neatly on the runway, smiling in satisfaction, as the old cropduster settled back to the ground. He eased the throttle the rest of the way back, leaving just enough power to taxy smoothly to the end of the runway. He was turning onto the perimeter track to head back to the hangar when Skip put out a hand from the front cockpit.
Murdock felt his heart sink and tried to figure out what he had done wrong this time. Too much throttle in the wingover? he wondered. It was only the once in the whole flight. He smiled despite his concern. And it was fun!
"Look," he started quickly before Skip could complain. "I know I was a bit steep in that last turn--"
"Stop here, let me out."
"Well if you're going to fly those kind of aerobatics you can do it without upsetting my stomach."
Murdock stared at the back of Skip's head and let the plane coast to a stop. Skip turned then and Murdock saw he was grinning in spite of his gruff tone. As the plane came to a halt, he jumped out, Murdock still watching him in confusion.
"Well?" Skip gave the side of the plane a slap. "You want to still be doing circuits out here when it's dark or you want to get back up there?"
"On my own?" Murdock forced himself to check that he was correctly understanding. "Solo?"
"That's what 'on your own' means, yeah." Skip grinned. "And don't bend anything--I need this plane to do the James' place tomorrow."
"Right." Murdock beamed back at him.
"Just keep steady on that rudder in the turns and keep it light on the throttle--I want there still to be gas left when you come back down! Just take her round the once."
"Right." Murdock tried to look serious and sensible but found he couldn't stop grinning.
Skip slapped the side of the plane again.
"You'll be fine. See you in a bit." He stepped back and clear as Murdock eased the throttle open again and turned to head back to the other end of the runway.
There was a brisk headwind and Murdock had barely lifted the tailwheel clear of the runway before the main gear followed and the sturdy biplane leapt from the ground. Murdock let out a gleeful whoop and climbed steeply away before remembering himself and easing back to a shallower angle. He knew down on the ground Skip would be shaking his head in resignation.
The sun was slipping towards the horizon and Murdock blinked and squinted as he turned towards it and his eyes readjusted to the glare. He dipped his head, shading his eyes with the brim of his cap. Happily, this was the shortest leg of the circuit and he was soon able to put both the sun and the rapidly cooling wind at his back
Without Skip's head obstructing the forward view, the yellow-brown landscape ahead seemed to stretch away forever and he could see the plane's shadow racing ahead of him across the ground.
Aware that he still had a ridiculous grin on his face, Murdock turned again and clicked on the radio.
"Alderwood tower, this is Lima Bravo, turning onto base and requesting clearance to land."
"Lima Bravo, You're clear to land back on runway Zero Niner. Tell Skip will ya that we're going for a beer once you're down." Ted in the trailer-come-control-tower was never one for formality.
Murdock grinned even wider. "Skip's already down."
"Oh-ho so that's why I can hear you grinning from all the way down here. Congratulations, H.M. Are you sure you want to come down?"
Murdock laughed. "I have strict instructions to return with gas still in the tanks."
"Right-o then. See you down here."
Murdock banked in a gentle descending turn onto the final leg and eased back the throttle, letting the airspeed and altitude trickle away until the runway came up beneath him.
Skip was still standing at the edge of the peri-track when Murdock rolled up and brought the plane to a halt. He waved at Murdock to taxy on over to the hangar then made a show of walking carefully around and checking everything was as it should be before grinning and reaching up to grab Murdock by the hand, shaking it vigorously.
"Well done, son."
Murdock sat still in the cockpit after his hand was released. Skip looked up at him and smiled in understanding. "I'll see you later."
Murdock nodded. He slowly worked his way through the final checks, lingering over them as the noises of the airfield died away and the setting sun turned the hangar windows dusty orange.
Eventually he gathered himself and climbed back to the ground. He headed outside, looked up at the darkening sky and smiled.
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