Cunning Running by Grahame Wilson.


We were a rather loose group. We met every week or so. Mostly male. All in our early to mid twenties. The age when parental ties were still being cut and a new, exciting yet daunting life of independence beginning. We were young puppies flexing our muscles, testing our teeth.

Dennis Macleod was different. He was barely twenty, yet mature. Calm. One had the feeling of a rock-like reliability. The type that most men would follow into battle. I knew him for about two years. Although we all had great respect and admiration for him, he was a very private person. One morning he brought his fiancee along. She was slim, pretty, and like him, very intelligent. She had the most wonderful smile, and it was obvious they were very much in love.

A few weeks later, I was getting ready for work. The radio was babbling away in the background with the usual mayhem of morning traffic accidents, overnight robberies and so forth, when the name Dennis Macleod grabbed my attention. I couldn't believe it. He had bought a rifle, traveled by train to Adelaide and killed his fiancee with a shot to the head. Then he quietly gave himself up. I found out later that she had changed her mind about him. He was jailed for life.

That was twenty three years ago.

My curiosity had not waned in those years, yet I could never quite take that step to find out more.

Supposing I did find out where he was?

Supposing I did visit him, would it seem be out of friendship, or out of morbid curiosity? We were friends, but not close friends.

How would he react? Perhaps he would rather be left alone? Perhaps it was just morbid curiosity on my part?

I did nothing.

Recently, I was going through the mundane task of sorting out the old newspapers when his name leaped out at me again. Tucked away amongst year-old news was a brief and rather cryptic item reporting his death.

Far from putting my mind at rest, the curiosity grew, and I found I was phoning the newspaper for more information. They had trouble locating anyone who even remembered the incident. It appeared that the police had supplied them with all the information. The N.S.W. Police force passed me from one phone extension to another. However, someone did mention that Dennis Macleod had been the cause of some embarrassment. I was about to give up altogether, when it was suggested that I should talk to a certain "Charlie Nesbitt." I was suddenly cut off when I attempted to pursue this further.

Detectives do not have an easy time, I decided, after trying to locate the elusive Charlie. Finally he answered his phone, and to my relief I had found someone who was helpful. He wanted us to meet because he was just as curious about Dennis Macleod as I.

Charlie was a freelance pilot, and we were to meet at a local airfield. It was a cold cloudy and windy day. I was starting to shiver before I finally found a grubby mechanic who directed me to a little Cessna parked out on the grass. He called out to a figure in white overalls crouched under the wing, but in the wind hearing was impossible. I ran out and even then had to shout. Charlie was tying ropes from the wings down onto heavy concrete blocks.

"You're early," he shouted, smiling up at me, and reaching out with a hand which was freezing. "Hop into my office out of the cold, I'll only be a minute," he indicated the aircraft's cabin. I didn't wait, but climbed in and shut the door. It was snug and warm.

Charlie climbed in the other side. "I've just landed, so she's still warm," he said shutting the door. "The main office inside is cold as hell. Anyhow I need to keep an eye on that student over there - he's pretty good, but in this gusty weather . . . ."

I noticed a lonely aircraft fighting the winds, as it slowly circled the field.

"That's fine with me," I replied. Charlie, I noticed, had reddish hair which seemed tortured by years of windy airfields. I guessed he was in his forties. Although he seemed reasonably fit, I sensed that more sleep and less adrenalin was probably what he needed.

I began by filling him in on just a few personal memories from the past. About Dennis. What he was like. About Margaret, his fiancee. About myself. Then Charlie started to tell me about that one day that Dennis Macleod came into his life...

"It was a Friday morning," he began. "I remember it had been very foggy. It lifted late and fortunately, it made my two passengers late getting to the airfield. My job was to ferry Police Sergeant Bill Johnston and a prisoner from Goulburn to Sydney. Apparently there had been a bashing in the prison, and the prisoner - it was Dennis of course - was needed as a witness for the inquiry. They were in a bit of a hurry to get him there, so they called me.

"I'd had these jobs before. They don't pay a lot, and they're often miserable affairs. You've usually got some sullen misfit, proclaiming his innocence in one back seat, and a bad-tempered cop in the other, trying to keep his breakfast down. The more sullen the misfit, the more bad-tempered the cop. . Anyhow I'm getting away from the story."

I smiled at this. Charlie paused, watching carefully as the student brought his plane onto the field, fighting against the crosswind. As soon as he'd touched down, he took off again into the murk for another circuit. It was starting to drizzle. Charlie reached for the microphone. "Tower, Charlie Nesbitt here. Could you tell KQN to make this his last circuit? Cloud's getting a bit low."

"Affirmative Charlie." came the crackling reply. The wind was rocking us steadily as we sat there, tied to the anchor blocks.

"Can't afford to lose a student," laughed Charlie, turning in my direction. "Not while he owes me money. Now, where was I? - Oh yes. That's right. - I was surprised, really surprised when the sergeant and the prisoner arrived. Although they were handcuffed together, they were on very friendly terms. Mind you, Bill Johnson is one of the nicest cops around. They were even using first names. I remember Bill laughing as he switched the cuffs over so that Dennis was now attached to the door handle. 'Better do the right thing.' he said. 'Got to keep those wandering hands of yours off the air hostess. 'We all had a good laugh at that, and although Dennis had barely uttered a word so far, I must say I took an instant liking to him. Seemed the sort of guy you could trust anywhere.

"We were soon in the air, and Dennis, as I was now calling him, chatted away about all sorts of things. The election results. The dry countryside below. Then he got onto flying. The aircraft. What the instruments did and so forth. I must admit I was beginning to think he knew more about flying than he pretended. Bill must have sensed this, and mentioned how Dennis was a great reader, and was virtually in charge of the prison library. He added that he had known Dennis for three years, and he'd never caused any trouble."

Charlie chuckled quietly and continued. "I couldn't see them behind me, but in amongst the conversation, there were several grunts coming from Dennis. It seemed as though the handcuffs were causing real discomfort. Bill must have leaned over to release them. Immediately I heard a shout, some struggling, and by the time I turned around there was a revolver, right in my face. It might seem ludicrous, but I realized I'd never seen one before, except in the movies. I was amazed that close up; you could see the bullets pointing right at you. "

I couldn't help a faint smile. Charlie was quite a story teller.

He continued. "Bill was absolutely stunned. The guy had certainly fooled him. Hollywood would have snapped him up if they'd seen his act. Bill started to tell him to hand the gun back. About the futility of it all. How he'd even forget the whole thing if he gave up now.

"However, this Dennis was no longer the relaxed, cooperative travel companion he'd been seconds before. He was tense. Nervous. Said he'd shoot out the radio if I touched it. Threatened to shoot us in the leg if we tried anything. I'm sure he would have too. I guess he wouldn't have gone this far, just to give up.

"Dennis then took my map, and directed us well to the north of our flight path. He'd obviously studied in that prison library, because 30 minutes later we were over a large flat clearing, miles from houses or roads.

"He ordered me to fly low over the clearing to check out the best landing spot. As I said before, he knew quite a bit about flying. Wind directions and so on. He knew more than you can get out of a book.

"We landed, and I taxied up near some large trees. He marched us over into the shade where he ordered Bill to sit down next to a small tree. Once Bill was handcuffed to it, Dennis relaxed a little. He was obviously sticking to a plan. The three of us were sitting on the ground. He got me to empty my wallet, then Bill's. Bill had about forty dollars. I had over three hundred."

Charlie stopped. He peered through the rain as his student dropped his wheels heavily onto the runway, leaving sprays of water as he braked to a halt and then taxied slowly towards the hanger.

"Yes, I'll always remember that," said Charlie turning to me again. "Dennis sitting there with us, staring for a long time at the money. It's crazy I know, but I think the strangest thing that happened all that day, was when I saw Dennis flush with embarrassment, as he picked up one hundred dollars of mine.

"He said quietly, ' I'll try and pay this back one day.' I'm sure he meant it. That was all he took.

"I mean, here was a guy who had committed murder, who was holding us at gunpoint, and was actually feeling guilty about swiping some of my money. Not your average crook, our Dennis.

"He and I went back to the Cessna, and I was amazed when he said, ' Now Charlie, teach me to fly.' I couldn't help a laugh. He actually laughed with me, but said he was serious. Poor Bill, handcuffed to the tree was too far away to hear, and must have been pretty worried when he saw us taxi around the field, and do a very wobbly take-off. We climbed just above the trees, tried a few gentle turns, came back, landed and repeated it all over again.

"Finally he let me out. As he taxied away and turned to take off, he threw out the pistol, then the keys to the handcuffs. He waved. It's strange, but I wish now that I had waved back.

"I released Bill. He was usually a great talker, but this time he just managed to mumble ' Thanks mate,' and that was about it. Later - I suppose it was about an hour later - as we were still scratching a big H on the ground, a helicopter arrived. Someone had obviously radioed our position. I think I know who.

"Well, as you've probably heard, it was eight months before they found the wreckage in a wild area in the Blue Mountains. It's a place called the Wollangamby Wilderness. With the fire and wild pigs, nothing was left of him. Maybe it's for the best."

Charlie stopped and quietly stared at the water, trickling in meandering little paths down the windscreen. Telling the story had obviously brought it all back, and there was now a touch of sadness about him.

I too, was lost in thought for a while.

I tried to sound casual, and asked Charlie if he normally carried a parachute. The question startled him. He'd forgotten about that. Yes, he always carried one. With so much flying he felt safer. He admitted he was short and said it acted as a convenient cushion.

I changed the subject as best I could, with a few pleasantries and some small talk, but I noticed a shadow of doubt, perhaps even suspicion, on his face. It seemed time to excuse myself, so I thanked him, and promised to keep in touch. I ran off, huddled against the rain. As I turned and waved, Charlie was still sitting there motionless, staring at me speculatively.

All those years ago, Dennis and I had trained together as parachutists. He'd had at least 100 jumps, and like me, he was more at ease under a canopy than in any aircraft.

I never mentioned any of that to Charlie.

My inquiries are over. Well, I think they are.

copyright Grahame Wilson