Prepared by Sean Pobuda
OUR PILOTS IN THE AIR
BY CAPTAIN WILLIAM B. PERRY
A BOMBING AIR RAID
The scene in the valley was striking in one respect. Low ranges of gently sloping hills had widened out, enclosing broad levels with what in America would be termed a creek but was here poetically named a river. By here I mean eastern France, not so many miles from No-Man's-Land. The "striking" feature was the "Flying Camp" spread out over a dead level of much trampled greensward, enclosed by high board walls, irregularly oval in shape, with a large clump of trees in the center and a multiplicity of large, small, mostly queer-shaped buildings scattered about.
There were a few wide roadways, with smaller avenues intersecting them, and larger open spaces, bordered by hangars, at either end of the oval.
On a bulletin board in one of these open spaces a placard was tacked, at which several young men in khaki and wearing the aviator cap were gazing, commenting humorously or otherwise. All that this plainly open placard published, apparently for all eyes to see, was as follows:
"Members of Bombing Squadron No. - will be on the qui vive at 7 p.m. tonight. Specific orders will be issued to each at that time."
Not much in that, an outsider might think. But wait! Listen!
"Say, Orry," remarked an athletic youth, throwing an arm casually over the shoulder of a smaller companion beside him and tweaking the other's ear, "does this mean that you and me go up together in that crazy old biplane they foisted on us before?"
"How should I know?" replied the smaller lad, a nervous, sprightly youngster, dark-eyed, curly-headed, thin-faced. "Did she get your nerve last time?"
"Not by a long shot! But when we made that last dive to get away from Fritzy in his Fokker, I noticed your hands on the crank were shaking. Say, if that Tommy in the monoplane hadn't helped us, where'd we been?"
"Right here, you goose! We'd have got out somehow, but it was squally for about five minutes."
The two strolled off together as others, also in khaki but with different fittings or insignia, gathered about to read, comment and then turn their several ways.
"We are in that bombing squad all right, I guess remarked Lafe Blaine, the athletic youngster. "But I am tired of this everlasting bombing that goes on, mostly by night. We're chums, Orry; we work together all right. There is no one in this camp can handle a fighting machine better than I; nor do I want a better, truer backer at the Lewis than you."
The Lewis gun was the one then most in use at this aerodrome station, which was somewhere on that section near where the British and French sectors meet.
"You always were a bully boy, Lafe, in spite of your two big handles. Say, how'd they come to call you Lafayette when you already had such a whopper of a surname?"
"Oh, dry up, Orry! Those names often make me tired. I'm only an ordinary chap, but with those names every noodle thinks I ought to be something real big. Catch on?"
Orris Erwin nodded and pinched the other's massive fore-arm, as he replied:
"So you are big! Bet you weigh one-eighty if you weigh a pound."
But Lafe was thinking. Finally he announced decidedly:
"I'm going to get after our Sergeant this afternoon. If he knows what's what, he'll let you and me take out that neat little Bleriot. We'll do our share of bombing of course; but if the Boches come up after us, we can do something else besides run for home — eh?"
Erwin shook his head dubiously as he replied:
"I doubt if he gives us the Bleriot. It's French, you know. We're practicing with the Tommies. He likes the way you handle things, but I fear he don't build much on me."
Lafe, of course, disclaimed any superiority, but Orris felt that way. Later, when mid-day chow was over, Lafe found his way to where the squadron commander was checking off the different machines and assigning to each the various occupants. All this on a pad, in one of the hangars, with no one else near, as the Sergeant thought. In Hangar Four were two Bleriots all in trim order. The Sergeant stared at one of them, grumbling to himself.
"What will I do here?" he reflected, half aloud, though unconscious of his words. "I forgot that Cheval's arm is giving him trouble. Confound him! He's too risky. Won't do to leave one of these behind. Hm-m-m! Who else —"
"Your pardon, Sergeant!" A tall, athletic young American was beside him, standing respectfully attention. "Why not take me? Give me a chance!"
So dominating, yet so deferential was Blaine's attitude and manner that Sergeant Anson for the minute said nothing, but he stared at the lad.
"I was with Monsieur Cheval, Sir, the night he got hurt, and I brought the machine home, under his direction of course. You ask him if I am not competent to handle that Bleriot. I'd much rather be in it than in the big biplane I used last time."
"But - but — you're too young, too inexperienced, too - too —"
"Now, Sir, please ask Cheval! You know what his judgment is. If I am to have an observer, let Cheval go. He can sit, and - and observe —"
"Dash your bally impertinence!" Anson was putting up a tremendous bluff. He knew it, and he knew that Blaine probably knew it, but "What do you know about Bleriots, anyway?" he asked.
In five minutes by enticing talk and really export fingering of the various parts of the admirable mechanism, Blaine half convinced his superior. More, for by adroit manipulation of a certain lock, with wrench and a pair of tweezers, he readjusted a certain valve hinge in the petrol tank which he had heard Monsieur Cheval grumbling about before. This he did with such dexterous rapidity and ease that Anson expressed approval, adding:
"Where did you pick up so much mechanical knowledge, Blaine?"
"At Mineola, in the States. They kept every applicant in the shops — some of them for weeks, others permanently."
"How happened it they didn't keep you there?" Anson was grinning now.
"Well, Sir, I wanted to learn to fly — high. That's what I went into aviation for. Before that I worked for the Wrights at Dayton. Well, when I tried flying, it happened there was a prize offered for flying to Manhattan and back, going round the Liberty Statue. I got hold of an old Curtis machine and somehow I came back second in the race. But —" here Blaine grinned at his own recollection, "but I pretty near busted up that old Curtis! After that they kept me flying until I finally came over here."
The Sergeant frowned then smiled and jotted something down on his pad.
"Go and see Monsieur Cheval. If he is not well enough to go with you — well, have you anyone else in view?"
"Yes, sir. My partner, who has gone with me on several raids. He's all right —"
"If you were disabled or killed, could he bring this machine back?"
"Yes, sir. He is as good as I am. Cool as a cucumber, but he — he's rather modest. In fact, if I don't get Cheval, I must have him, with your permission of course."
"Or without it, eh?" Anson again smiled, this time genially. "Well, well! Do what I have said. If you have to do without Cheval, bring that youngster who is so modest to me. I will judge." And the Sergeant turned off, resuming his penciling and further wandering as if Blaine were not there.
Half an hour later Lafe stood by the cot where a shallow-faced, trim-mustached man lay groaning discontentedly. At sight of the young American he raised up to a sitting position, disclosing his right arm and wrist still in splints and bandages. Moreover the pains of moving himself made him groan and ejaculate after the mercurial manner or the Frenchman unused to lying still and eager always to be up and doing.
"Ah, it ees mon comrade Blaine! Ver welcome — mooch so! Wish mooch you speak ze language, ze French."
Monsieur Cheval, really a noted aviator, had chummed much with the American contingent and had been in the States once, though only for a short time. But he had learned "ze language" — after a fashion. When Blaine briefly explained what he wanted and what the squadron commander had said, Cheval lay back with a deep sigh, saying:
"Merci, comrade!" Here he chuckled. "I like to go: I want to go! But I no use to you now. Not at all! I no use to myself. Voila! I got well queek; better so here; not over yon in No-Man's-Land. But you be sure bring my enfant back safe, my Bleriot — Ah! A great baby is my Bleriot!"
Blaine promised to do his best. His pal and comrade, Orris Erwin, was also good, safe — in short, reliable.
"Never fear, Monsieur Cheval! Unless they get us up yonder," pointing vaguely upward into the sky, "we will fetch her back all right. Good luck! Try to be out as soon as you can. We miss you on these little trips after Fritzy."
An hour later Blaine, accompanied by Erwin, stood before Sergeant Anson in the latter's cubbyhole of an office, while a stream of khaki-clad young men filed in one by one. Anson waved them aside until the others had left, then turned to Blaine.
"I saw Cheval myself," said the Sergeant grimly. "He wanted to go but it will be a week before he can use that arm, aside from other injuries. I spoke to Captain Byers about you. He was reluctant, but owing to the newness of so many of you Yankee airmen, he was unable to make suggestions. Only this- you two must be careful, cautious —"
"Not too cautious, I hope, sir!" came promptly from Blaine, while Orris smiled behind his sleeve. "A pilot has to risk things, you know."
"Don't interrupt!" Anson ordered sharply, though his eyes twinkled. "You know what I mean. Can you bring the plane back, Erwin, if anything happens to Blaine?"
"Yes, sir, I think so. I've often flown before, alone —"
"Under fire?" This sharp reply from the Sergeant.
"I was in the last raid after Vimy Ridge, Sir. Brenzer, the pilot, was killed. I managed to get back to our lines."
"You been over some time?"
"Yes, Sir. Only part of the time I was stationed at Aldershot, as assistant trainer for a bunch of raw rookies from our side."
One long look at both Anson gave, then turned away with:
"You'll do. Both of you be on hand for chow at regular time. Then await instructions." He waved them off.
THE WHIR OF WINGS
Shortly after a bugle call the following order was posted in the general mess hall for all concerned to read.
"Members of Bombing Squadron No. - will carry out the following order. 10 a.m., 12 midnight, 2 a.m. are the respective times to start. At each time three machines, each carrying eight 25 pound bombs, will bomb respectively R——-, C———, L———. Secrecy is imperative. Each member of the three squads thus assigned will be ready at Hangars No. -, No. -, No. - at times mentioned above."
Meantime each aviator, with his observer, had been privately notified by the Sergeant in person. This was an every-day operation order and was taken as a matter of course. These night raids are mostly for the purpose of keeping the Boche busy and nervous after hard days and nights in the front trenches, thus supposedly lowering his morale. Usually the points thus selected are the shell-torn villages back of the front, where Fritz has been sent for a brief period of rest before being sent to the front again. About the time he lies down in the half-ruined house that is his billet, and dreams of home and conquering peace, a bomb falls inside. The walls are further shattered, some of his comrades killed or maimed, he perhaps among them. Other bombs fall, heavy explosions result, and Fritz finds that his night's rest is lost in general turmoil. This continues night after night and the damage to German morale is enormous.
From the point of view of the air-service, things are different. These night raids are a matter of course with the pilots. It is part of the regular work.
When Blaine and Erwin climbed into the Bleriot, bombs already stowed, and it was wheeled out in front of the hangar, everything was very quiet. A minute later they were climbing up into the inky darkness at the appointed signal, the only noises being the whirrings of their own and two other two machines appointed for the two A. M. hour.
Watching for the signal of the leader of the squad, at the right time they headed for the further front.
Over the trenches star-shells from the infantry could be seen. Under direction they headed over No-Man's-Land, keeping at sufficient altitude, hugging the darkness, avoiding glints of light, dodging occasional searchlights, and all practically without a word spoken.
"You've been out here before, Lafe"' said Orris at last. "How much further are we going?"
"Be there in two minutes. Keep easy! I'm going lower. Get your bombs ready."
Silently Erwin obeyed. Below lay blackness, relieved at one point by a few dots of light that marked the ruins of the hamlet on which they were to let loose the bombs. So far no sign of life in the air or below appeared.
The three machines in this detachment had scattered in order to distribute their supply of bombs at a given signal from the leader. In this night raid an escorting fleet that usually accompanied the daytime raids was omitted. There was little need.
"Now!" cautioned Blaine to Orris and the latter began to drop his first sheaf, a rather heavy one as the bombs weighed twenty-five pounds each. Others were at work also and the village below, already in half ruins, began to detonate with sharp explosions, lurid flashings and an uproar of human cries. It was evident that the raiders had struck the right spot.
For some minutes the work went on, Blaine swooping still lower, until glimpses of hurried scurryings of the soldiers thus rudely disturbed were mingled with the larger glares from the continuous explosions.
Orris Erwin, through though smaller and slighter physically, worked away until the last sheaf was exhausted.
Then, and only then, the scene below was illuminated by the flash and roar of hostile artillery. A shell exploded with a deafening report so near their Bleriot that it was evident that the firer had sighted them during Lafe's last lower swoop.
On the instant Blaine pressed a trigger, elevating the sharp nose of the machine. As the deflected planes responded to sundry manipulations at certain levers and they began to climb spirally into the upper air, the powerful engines, exerting greater strength, shot them rapidly upward where height and obscurity lessened the danger of further shots.
"Well, Archie came near getting us then, eh?" This from Lafe.
Receiving no answer, he glanced aside. What was his dismay to see Erwin's slender figure drooping nervelessly, his head sinking, and the emptied sheaf of bombs sprawling neglected in his lap!
"You're hit, Orry? For God's sake buck up! I've still got to climb or they'll get us yet."
Clamping his knee round the wheel, he managed with one hand to pull Orris forward and sideways, so that the boy's curly head, now capless, lay against his thigh. With one arm half around and upon that senseless head, holding the slight frame from slipping, he still manipulated the alert Bleriot, that responded instantly to each human spur with a mobility that was almost life-like.
The two other machines had vanished in the darkness, doubtless cleaving the higher air strata in a backward flight to the home aerodrome, which was now the goal of all. Meantime searchlights were flashing here, there, yonder through the inky sky. The swift reports of anti-aircraft guns split the night's silence in a most disconcerting manner. Erwin groaned and twisted his body.
"Stay still, Orry! We must 'a' been the last to quit, and they're making things hot back westward."
Here a blinding gleam of light flashed athwart his eyes and , letting go of Erwin, he darted aside suddenly on a differing course. Erwin's body crumpled into a heap. A heavier man might have toppled over the edge, perhaps hanging helplessly at peril of falling out, unless held by the straps which many old aviators neglect. As it was, the nerveless lad was held by the high rim of the opening that fenced them both in. For the moment the boy was safe.
Giving his whole attention to the machine, Blaine zigzagged and dodged, mounting ever and ever higher. Yet his trend was unavoidably towards the east, further within the enemy lines.
"For the present I've got to go this way," he thought. "I hope Lex and Milt got away west before those 'cussed Archies broke loose. We'll have to stay quiet until this ruction below settles down." Lex and Milt were the pilots of the two remaining machines of this, the third and last section of the bombing squadron of that night.
"Orry! Oh, Orry! Wakeup! Aren't you all right yet?"
These and other adjurations Blaine would make from time to time. A chill came over him more than once as he wondered if Erwin would not recover. Once only as Lafe moved his own leg, pressing it unduly hard against the other, Erwin gave another groan.
A whir as of wings sounded in his rear, and Blaine became aware of shadowy movements through the faintly growing light in the east. Undoubtedly it must be a hostile machine. He had been spotted as he flew eastward. In addition to the now waning fire from the Archies, planes were now out after him. Divining this, Blaine wheeled, put on more power and flow towards the northwest, the German keeping after him at increasing speed. As the light increased the clinging shadow in the east grew more plain. Whoever it was, the pursuer was determined not to be shaken off. Soon he would begin firing.
At this junction Erwin gave Blaine's leg an undeniable kick. He was at last reviving. The pilot leaned towards his bunkie.
"Say, Orry, are you coming to at last?"
Another kick, evidently part of a struggle by Orris to right himself.
Blaine saw the German making the first spiral upward, in an effort to attain a position suitable for using the machine gun. Blaine therefore zigzagged more to westward, thereby throwing the reviving Erwin into an easier position. At this an easier position. At this Blaine was pleased to see his friend look wonderingly at him and the bowed head slightly raise itself.
"Lay still right where you are, Orry," murmured Lafe. "There's a Boche after us. We've got out of Archie's range, but I've one of their planes on our heels. Whist! Git down lower! He's going to fire. If he does, I - I'll crumple up. We'll land and - and -"
Further talk ceased as the simultaneous rattle and spatter of opposing machine guns made talk impracticable. Blaine was below, the Boche above, each whirling, diving, spiraling as dexterous pilots do in such conflict.
True to his promise amid the first exchange of shots, watching both Erwin's recovery and the German, now closer than ever, Blaine concealed himself.
And now, seeing that Orris was quite revived, and following Blaine's counsel, they presented to the German only a collapsed form, half leaning as if hit again. Blaine, almost out of sight, steered groundward.
"Are you strong enough now to take my place?"
"I — I think so," returned the still reviving Erwin. "What you going to do — land?"
At this juncture the machine hit the ground in a decreasing glide, while Blaine, half rising, pitched forward as if dead.
"Take the machine, Orry," Blaine had said. "I'm dead; you're wounded."
Knowing that Blaine had his plans laid, Erwin followed. Then the Boche, feeling pretty good over the idea that he had captured an enemy machine with two men in it, also alighted from his own a few rods distant. To his view there appeared one man dead and another wounded.
Covering Erwin with his revolver as he sat leaning back ghastly and still bleeding from the shrapnel that had at first struck him down, the German eyed his apparently helpless victims.
"Get oudt!" he snapped in rather poor English to Erwin.
The latter started to obey, still covered by the pistol at his head. Suddenly Blaine, who had tumbled to the ground at the first landing, now sat up, his own revolver pointed straight at the German.
"Throw down that gun!" he announced in clear, steady tones. "Quick! No nonsense, Fritz!"
One brief stare. Then, realizing that he had been outgeneraled, he sullenly obeyed. To his further amazement, Erwin, now quite recovered, rose up, got out, and though weak tied the Boche hard and fast under Blaine's direction.
"Now, Orry," said Lafe, looking his comrade over carefully, "are you right enough to take our machine back?"
"Bet your sweet life I am!" Orry's face was still pale, while blood was coagulated in his curly short hair. "I'm all right, Lafe. What are we going to do?"
"We'll put this chap in his own machine, and I'll take it and him back."
"You mean provided Fritzy lets us get through safe."
"Und zat ve wond do! Forshtay?" This from the now sullen German standing by bound hand and foot, yet mentally antagonistic still.
"Don't you worry, bo," said Blaine, coolly picking up the man, a follow of no small weight, and lifting, him into his own machine, a big Taube of many horse-power. "That is, if you've got petrol enough."
This was assured beyond doubt by subsequent examination. The German safely stowed, Erwin and Blaine made a hurried yet accurate inspection of both planes, and Orris at once started westward. Blaine was about to follow when horse hoofs were heard beyond a hedge not far away. The German's eyes flashed. He divined a forcible rescue. He began to yell, but with a swift move Blaine gagged him with his own bandanna 'kerchief.
The German struggled but Blaine had tied him also to the posts supporting the hollow chamber wherein pilot and observer sat, and now springing in himself, he started off.
Right then the heads of a column of cavalry debouched in the field. The roar of roar of the Taube filled the air and in an instant they saw what was happening. By this time Orris was well up in the air and still spiraling higher. The Taube, with which Blaine was already partly familiar through prior captured machines among the Allies, was making its first upward curve, when a thought came to Blaine. A ruse! The German lay still helpless, bound and gagged. Though struggling with his bonds, his eyes were spitting anger.
In its case, with pulley attached, was a small flag of one of the larger German aerial squadrons. Blaine plucked it forth, jerked the pulley cord, and there unrolled before all eyes the Imperial eagle, with certain other designs, all on a black background, and with a death's head in white at each corner. It was two or three feet square, and as it floated from one of the poles sustaining the biplanes, no one in the clear morning light could mistake its meaning.
Blaine himself was not sure as to the flag. But it really was the one used only by a certain squadron especially endorsed and. supported by the Kaiser and the Royal House of Hohenzollern and of which the Crown Prince was the special patron. By the time Blaine was above the treetops, some twenty or thirty horsemen had debouched into the sheep pasture where these happenings took place. They were lancers and, mistaking the real nature of this maneuver, every lance was depressed in salute and a horse shout rose up that sounded much like a series of Hochs with Kaiser at the end.
"Holy smoke!" said Blaine, getting the machine gun in shooting trim with one hand while manipulating the controls with the other. "Say, Fritzy," to the snarling German at his feet, who fairly writhed at his bounds and gag, "your folks think I'm off after those English or Yankee schwein! Savy?"
But here a sudden change came over the scene.
FIGHTING BOTH ENEMY AND ELEMENTS
The Bleriot which Erwin was now piloting, though far in the upper air, was seen to be whirling round and returning, apparently to Blaine's rescue.
Evidently Orris had also seen the irruption of lancers and had no intention of deserting his comrade and friend while in possible peril. To intensify the strain he began to spray the Germans below with the remaining sheaf of bullets in the magazine of the machine gun.
Seeing no further need of camouflage on the part of the Americans, Blaine, with one foot crushing down the German, who was now attempting to rise despite his bonds, whirled the German machine gun round upon the now suspicious lancers below.
These were unslinging their carbines. Blaine anticipated them with a spatter of bullets from their own weapon. At this bedlam broke loose below.
While Erwin had done little or no damage, probably owing to distance, Blaine's discharge was pointblank and deadly.
Meantime in some way the German managed to loosen one arm. Recklessly he seized hold of one the controls, wrenching it violently.
"You will, will you?" exclaimed the American, "We must get away from here at any rate!"
Releasing both hands, he seized the German by the throat, pinning him against the rim of the hole that held both, and with his feet on the accelerator rose rapidly upward. By this time bullets were spitting round them, one of which seared the German's bare scalp deeply. Uttering a curious groan, the fellow sank back and Blaine released his throat.
"He's out of it for the time being," thought Lafe. "Good thing, too. Hard work to keep a strangle hold on that chap and keep his machine right side up. Hey there, Orry!"
By this time Erwin had forged so close in swinging round again that only a few yards separated the planes.
"Don't you go any nearer those Boches. I am all right. We got some of them. Look at those riderless horses!"
True it was that several riderless horses were careering about the field below. Also at another angle some men were dragging forth an antiaircraft gun, or so it looked to be by its peculiar carriage and mounting.
"Sure you are all right?" called Orris as the two machines sped along side by side, all the while rising. "Didn't that fellow give you trouble?"
"None to speak of. I've looped a cord about his throat, and got the other end round a cleat. If he tries to jerk away he'll strangle. Put on more power, man! Can't you see they've dragged the Archies out and are stuffing in sheaves of bullets?"
"All right!" called Erwin, now spiraling higher, higher, climbing cloudward. "Sure you got the Taube straight — hey, Lafe?"
"Course I have! Didn't I work one of them at —?" But the name was lost to Orris as the distance increased.
To Blaine's relief the Boche did not move for a moment or two. This gave him time to twist that free arm back where Lafe could press the weight of one big foot thereon, and also complete the adjustment of the cord. He arranged it by looping twice round the cleat, the length reaching to Fritz's throat being drawn taut. Moreover, as the German's body was resting sidewise upon his other arm, still tightly bound, Blaine felt that he had the man for the time being at least.
Now came heavier roars from below. Not only one gun but several had been brought up, trained on the fliers and were being fired rapidly at the receding airplanes.
Also the true nature of the situation aloft must have been divined. Hence the extreme activity among the Germans, now trying desperately to reverse the progress of events by bringing one or both machines down. The fact that the life of one of their own comrades might be snuffed out did not weigh with them at all. Such is the German militaristic creed. The individual, his life, or welfare is as nothing when compared with the welfare of the cause, the state, the whole brutal, efficient system.
After all, this comrade might be dead now. They must get at and, if possible, overtake these schwein at all cost. Were not they retreating with a choice Prussian machine, that even now flaunted in derision the Death's Head Flag?
No wonder the Boches were mad — good mad!
But our Yankee adventurers were by no means at the end of their raid. The sun was rising. With the rare promise of a clear day, considering the time and the region, it was more evident than usual that a very high altitude must be reached and maintained.
There were the German trenches to be passed, the trenches raided only a few hours before, the No-Man's-Land, before the welcoming shelter of friendly areas and support might be reached. At any rate, they could see and signal other and also keep close together and be ready to afford mutual support in case of meeting the foe. This last was soon verified by the rise and approach of a small squadron of scout cruisers, winged monoplanes, each with a ed monoplanes, each with a single pilot only and one machine gun.
"Keep well under them," signaled Blaine to his friend. "Got any ammunition? What? The devil!"
Orris had replied to Lafe's queries by shaking out the now empty cartridge sheaves and dropping them again. Lafe, then swooping closer, Called forth to his mate:
"By its looks this gun is a rebuilt Lewis. Can you use any of mine? You know the Boches are great in reconstructing captured weapons to their own use. Get below me and to one side. Hurry up! I'll try to toss you a sheaf. Here — damn you!"
This to the German who again evinced signs of life. Having no time to spare, Blaine jerked the throat cord closer and gave a heavier foot pressure to the prisoner's twisted arm. Meanwhile with no time to lose, Orris swooped lower, rising gently under Blaine's right or starboard side. The latter had to rise in order to toss the weighty sheaf of cartridges exactly where he wished them to fall — into Erwin's lap.
This he did successfully. But in so doing his weight relaxed upon the Boche's arm. At the same time Orris, in catching the sheaf, allowed his control grip to relax. The nose of Orris's machine, now rising, bumped into Lafe's under plane, tilting it up sharply.
Precisely at this juncture, and as Blaine's foot pressure on his prisoner's arm relaxed, the tilting planes threw him sharply forward, down and upon the German. The latter, seeing his one chance, wrenched his partially released arm forward and caught it round Blaine's legs as he stumbled. At the same time this double movement somehow operated to release Fritz's other arm.
By now, Orris, unconscious of the mischief his own upward shove had caused, sheered his machine aside, still climbing upward and onward, only to find three of the enemy scouts nearing rapidly and making ready for an encounter.
Looking back, he saw, in the place of Blaine's leather cap and goggles, a dimly shimmering twinkle of arms and legs flashing above the rim of the open enclosure where the pilots sit.
"Great guns!" he ejaculated, his blood tingling with thrills. "That chap has got loose and they're having it. What must I do?"
Even while these thoughts were flashing, he was working. He dared not turn to Blaine's relief. He did not know yet if the sheaf thrown him would fit his own machine gun. But first he must dip, circle, come up underneath and try his luck.
As has been said, Orry was no novice. He had flown at the front for months as one of the Lafayette Escadrille. Before that he had worked his way up in aerial mechanics in the United States and also here in France.
Even while diving, circling, swirling in mid air, ten thousand feet up, he was adjusting the new sheaf to his own gun. Happily it fitted.
That was a good sign, and pirouetting, not unlike an expert dancer executing a new turn, he dove aside and came up fairly behind the nearest Boche. Without hesitation he began to spray the enemy with a shower of their own bullets. It was indeed lucky the new cartridges fitted. It was merely one blunder committed by the extra efficient Germans in converting British weapons to their own use.
Evidently the ammunition dealt out to the Death's Head Squadron was of the best. It was intentionally so. Another proof of this lay in the fact that the German plane thus attacked fell sideways, recovered, plunged half staggering away, while a tiny spark of flame became visible to Erwin as he sheered aside in the opposite direction and prepared for a new onset from above by the second plane. So far as he could see, the other plane was making for Blaine's machine that still flow the Death's Head Flag. Yet it was acting strangely as seen from a distance by the Boches, who might or might not be posted as to the strange change of its ownership.
The second plane, rendered more cautious by the fate of the first, which was now descending a mass of flames, began a series of divings, wrigglings, and even nose dips, in its efforts to confuse Erwin and find a good position from which to shower the daring invader with bullets.
On his own part Orris went through the usual maneuvers customary when two airmen, both skillful, are seeking the advantage of the other. Well it was for the young man that his own Bleriot was one of the best of the up-to-date fighting planes.
Numerous shots were taken on both sides, and in the excitement f or the moment Orris lost all sight of the fate of his partner. At last, in trying by a desperate and perilous maneuver, to "get on the tail" of his adversary by a side-loop in mid-flight, the Boche pilot, while upside down, came for an instant fairly within range. Quickly Orris took his advantage.
He was above and to the right of the German, and with a single whirl of his Lewis gun brought it fully in line with the Boche's head as he sat head down, strapped in his seat, while his machine was swiftly turning in its side evolution so as to bring him in the rear of his enemy.
"Now!" gasped Orris, beginning his bullet spray. "Help me, Mars!"
A queer prayer, but it was quickly answered. The German machine righted more slowly, however. Erwin dove swiftly down and came upright in the rear of his now swaying adversary. Then the lad saw what fate had done for him.
The German had collapsed in his seat, to which, as has been said, he had strapped himself. His head lay on the rim, apparently a mass of streaming crimson. His machine, a renovated Fokker, was tipsily zigzagging along without any guidance except its stabilizer and its own momentum.
To say the boy was half paralyzed at first is not too strong. But a revulsion swept through him in a flood. At the same time there came to his brain a vivid flash, reminding him that while thus desperately engaged for his own life, he had heard sounds of aerial battling somewhere in his rear.
While he was making up his mind what to do next, the whir of speeding motors rose rapidly. Looking back, he saw the Death's Head flag waving from the nearest one and soon distinguished Blaine, apparently all right, but chugging away at top speed in Erwin's direction.
Just now the Fokker with its dead occupant gave another side drop and, uninfluenced by the usual controls, came nearly to a standstill. It toppled again, then down it went earthward at increasing speed, carrying its occupant along.
"Hey-you!" This from Blaine as he swept up and by, while rounding to. "Look behind! I dropped that chap — the first one! But he's brought a lot of others. Let's make for home, boy!"
Apparently it was too late without a further scrimmage, for no less than half a dozen Boche planes were swooping around their rear, some already within range. In maneuvering into position Blaine again picked up his megaphone, saying:
"I saw you drop those chaps. Oh, you Orry! Here we go — right for some more of them! Whoopee!"
It seemed little short of blasphemy — this uproarious spirit, in the face of the odds gathering in behind. But Blaine was built that way. Danger, the closer and more menacing, instead of rousing fear, nerved him to his best or, as it might turn out, worst.
"Where's your prisoner?" shouted Erwin. "I feared he'd get you."
"Nit, old man! I got hold of a monkey-wrench and knocked him cold. But he was game, you bet!"
"Where is he then?"
"Cold and stiff under my feet. Watch out, Orry!"
Megaphones cast aside, both Americans now addressed themselves to the desperate task of fighting these new assailants and reaching their own lines.
But in the first firing that ensued Erwin's Lewis gun suddenly jammed. This was probably one result of his having to use the German-made ammunition tossed to him earlier by Blaine, when his own had been exhausted. He signaled to his partner:
"Gun jammed! Must cut for home — understand?"
"All right! Go up - up -"
A burst of flame from Blaine's machine, and the toppling down of the nearest adversary was the first result of this new encounter. Evidently that flag waving from Blaine's captured plane had fooled the Boches again.
Down, down went the hostile machine, its pilot frantically but ineffectually trying to right himself.
Passing Erwin, the latter saw the Boche, evidently a mere lad, working at the controls as the plane dropped down like a dead leaf in the air.
"Poor fellow," sighed Orris, beginning to spiral upward. "What a deadly cruel thing war now is!"
Up, up he climbed, two of the enemy following, while Blaine was engaging another, the last. The final view Erwin had of his bunkie the two were engaged in a close duel, dipping, darting, flashing about each other. Now came interchanging machine gun fire, with both gradually following Erwin higher, higher, until the latter began to feel that the thin air of these upper regions was getting on his nerves. A glance at his own register showed eighteen thousand feet or thereabouts.
Still his adversaries climbed after him. Now and then a spurt of flame and a spatter of bullets indicated that his own plane was being more or less perforated. The lad became doubtful as to the wisdom of waiting longer for his comrade. Evidently Blaine would fight on as long as his ammunition lasted or until disabled himself. After all, two hostile planes dropped and the third one brought home with its occupant was not a bad conclusion for a night's bombing raid on the enemy trenches.
Here a sudden, fierce gust of wind from the north catching him unawares half tilted his machine and then as he righted it sent him scurrying at terrific speed southward. At the same time a black cloud, belching and flaming thunder and lightning, swept down on him with almost the force of a hurricane.
Looking back, Orris saw his nearest foe, apparently caught by the same whirlwind that had nearly unseated him, go side-looping over and over as if in the grasp of mighty, invisible forces that he was unable to meet or control.
"It's safety first, I guess, for us all," he thought, at once diving into the nearing thunder burst that closed round him like a black pall, a pall now threaded and convulsed with electric forces that showed only in vivid flashes and deafening thunders.
The winds, too, picked him up, whirled him about and otherwise so tossed his machine here, there, yonder, that for five fearful minutes he hardly knew where or what he was. The wind, now bitter cold, would have frozen his flesh but for his sheathing of wool and leather that protected his face, arms and body. Blinding gusts of rain, sleet and frozen snow buffeted the planes, the shield of the fuselage, and all of himself that was visible.
By this time Blaine, the German planes, his own late adversary, had all vanished. He was alone, like a buffeted, tossed, shaken twig, in that wild vortex of darkness and storm.
With his machine gun jammed and his petrol running low, what was there for him to do but descend and make for the home aerodrome?
"Might as well," he reflected. "We've already overstayed our time."
Pointing gently downwards, he suffered himself to drift. That is, if one in the midst of a blinding storm and seated in a war-plane may be supposed to drift. Rather it was being tossed about, constant vigilance at the controls alone keeping his plane from literally flopping over and somersaulting here and there, like a dead leaf.
Then without warning he felt the machine dropping down, down, down. Yet the planes were level and the whole natural resisting power of the machine was at its usual operation.
"By George! This storm has made an air cave underneath. I must get busy."
Another twist of the levers and the plane jumped forward, for the first time feeling no resistance of the storm. And, while he was glancing around for more light, out he shot like an arrow from a bow into the clear sunlight, the earth near — too near, in fact.
Back of him the storm clouds were whisking themselves away so rapidly that the transition was almost staggering. And below — what was it he now saw?
For answer, almost before his own mind had sensed the change, there came the spatter of Archies by the dozen and the menacing roar of machine guns, sheltered here and there over the scraggy plain within the pill-boxes that have of late been substituted for the vanishing trench lines. Artillery bombardments by the Allies have so devastated certain regions that trenches have become impossible; hence the concrete pillboxes.
"Lucky I've some gasoline left," thought Erwin, surprised but not unduly alarmed. "It's a race now between me and the bullets."
Instantly he put on high speed, at the same time rising in zigzags while the bombardment continued increasingly.
Right ahead, however, he saw what looked like a communicating underground trench; and at certain intervals were openings. These openings revealed to him a blurring, moving mass, muddy gray, yet with glints here and there as of some substance brighter. Closer yet he flew, regardless of safety. His air tabulator was not working. That was a sign that he was within two to three hundred feet of the earth. All at once something flashed out from this moving mass that presently disappeared underground again.
Archie had momentarily stopped. But an unmistakable whistle of lead was accompanied by a metallic puncture below. The bullet hit the near end of his petrol tank almost at his knee. Now he knew.
"Lordy!" he palpitated. "That's too near!" Already his fingers were twisting the speed accelerator, while up went the nose of his machine. Still the Archies spake not, but the spat, spat, spat of real rifle bullets followed his retreat.
Just then his hand, feeling below, came in contact with the hand grenades which he had forgotten amid the excitement of his later flight. Ahead rose a swell of land that he knew terminated in a bluff abutting upon one of the smaller streams of that region. This underground trench, evidently dug at great cost of labor and life, went straight for that bluff.
Their own aerodrome lay only a few miles opposite.
By actual and repeated reconnaissance both from below and in the air, this bluff was considered as deserted, or held at most by a very small force. This was owing to its supposed isolation.
Evidently Erwin had just made a great discovery. At least he hoped so.
On he flew. His machine was hit in many places, principally the wings, the tail and along the under side of the fuselage. Through this had come the ball that nearly perforated the tank.
There was one more opening ahead and then the trench sank out of sight near the base of the low bluff. Orry's hand closed over the first grenade. He was really an expert bomb-thrower. At great risk he dipped gradually until, when about at the point overhead he desired, he threw two bombs in swift succession. Then-up, up rapidly. With all the power of his engine he climbed, while two sharp explosions sounded from below.
Had the lad looked down he would have seen the trench walls at the open space crumble inward, while the mass of moving gray appeared to disintegrate, to vanish for the time being.
But with the throwing of the bombs, Erwin had other work on hand. Archie had broken loose again. One larger molded shot ripped through the tail of the Bleriot, ricocheted obliquely and hit that same tank again, but with more force. His head lowered, the lad saw what had been done. More than that he saw what impended. The petrol was low.
Being under fire, at any moment a stray shot might ignite what little was left. Pointing the machine still more upward, he seized a bunch of loose lint, used to sop up recurring leaks here and there, and with a handy screw driver he managed to stop the rent in the metal with a few sharp adroit punchings.
Again to the machine, now over and beyond the bluffs; over the crinkling muddy stream, now almost overflowing its banks. On the bluff behind a squad of men in gray were training one of the Archies that had been dragged up from somewhere underneath.
"I've got to give her all the head she'll take," he thought. "That gun will get me if they understand their business."
Over beyond the stream a low embankment rose well up at perhaps three to f our hundred yards from its first bank. Erwin was rising in a steep climb, zigzagging crazily for the machine was giving out, owing to lack of fuel. But he made a last effort to thus dodge the rain of bullets that began to pelt upon him from the rear. Another larger gun came up. Both joined in firing.
A shell splinter struck his shoulder, tearing loose the leather garment, while a searing, hot agony seized him, paralyzing his left arm.
He was over the second embankment when the final crisis came. Were these foes or friends that were popping up, pointing weapons at those behind? Friends surely! Down he had better go. The pain was so acute that only one arm was now at his service, while the dizziness that accompanies the pain of severe gun wounds filled his brain, dimmed his eyes, palsied his last despairing effort to land somehow behind that sheltering embankment.
Just then came a last explosion close behind. He seemed to be going down, down — where?
Then a terrific shock, and all consciousness left him. The shock seemed to drive from him all notion of anything or anybody. He knew nothing, nothing - nothing —
When at last Orris Erwin again knew that he was in the land of the living he was in a base hospital behind the front, and not far from his own aerodrome. His shoulder was in bandages. His left arm was in splints, but not painful. What seemed to be other bandages swathed his lower legs. Altogether he felt himself to be in pretty bad shape.
Then appeared Sergeant Anson who, seeing that Erwin was now awake and sensible, paused, a dry grin upon his weather-worn visage.
"Huh! Where's that Bleriot you or Blaine were to bring back?"
But the smile that accompanied this was not condemnatory by any means.
"I stuck to it, sir, long as I could stick to anything. How do I happen to be trussed up this way here?"
For a first reply the Sergeant threw back his head and gave vent to a real laugh. Then he patted Orry's curly head gently.
"You'll know in due time, youngster! Where's your pilot, Lafe Blaine?"
"Isn't Blaine back, too, and in that Death's Head Boche plane he — we took from them back of their lines? As for the Bleriot, I was in it last I remember."
Here the door of the ward opened, and who should walk in but Blaine himself, with Monsieur Cheval following. Cheval wore upon his breast a silver medal resembling nothing so much as an ace. For a wonder Blaine himself wore a tricolor ribbon with a tiny gold cross that Erwin was sure he had never seen his athletic countryman have before.
At sight of Erwin's pale face and rather fragile form, now animated with conversational fire and energy, the big American turned to his French comrade, saying:
"There, my friend! Did I not tell you that our brave little comrade would be more like himself today than he has been any time these ten days? Say little one," bending over Orry affectionately, "have you got over that nasty spell yet? Ha — I guess so!"
"Where's that Bleriot the Sergeant said we must bring back? I was in it when — when the Boches or — or the devil got me."
"That Bleriot, like yourself, mon comrade, is in the hospital; that is, the repair shop." This from Monsieur Cheval, still wearing his right arm in a sling, though now divested of splints.
"Oh!" A flash of dim recollection came to Orry for a moment, "I kind of remember. First there was a bluff, with what looked like a communicating trench, in spots. Just as if most of it was covered. I dropped some bombs I had left on the moving gray something I saw. After that I skimmed over the bluff. Then there was a stream, and another embankment beyond. After that I don't seem to remember much. How did I get here?"
"You got here, Orry, because the Boches downed you right over our front trench at this angle, which is nearer the Boche line than anywhere in this sector. We didn't even know that the enemy had dug a covered trench to the far side of the bluff on the river bank until you let us know by dropping bombs on them. This so angered them that they dragged out two Archies and peppered you good. You fell into our trench, and - and with the knowledge you gave us we directed our heavy artillery right on that bluff.
Here Blaine grinned complacently while patting Orry's head again, very gently though, on account of the bandages.
"Yes, mon comrade," supplemented Cheval. "It was to you that our batteries owe their accuracy of firing in dealing with that bluff. Do, you know that they must have been digging there for days, perhaps weeks? The whole interior had been hollowed out, and there was a picked battalion stationed there. La, la! It was a lucky accident that led you in my own good Bleriot to lay open to us the secrets of those over yonder, who are trying to enslave the world."
"But — but I didn't know," murmured Erwin gratified, yet somehow feeling as if honors were being heaped gratuitously on his undeserving head. Something of this escaped him the while. Monsieur Cheval held up a protesting hand.
"No, no! You must not! You shall know what France thinks of the service you have done for her, and — yes, for your own brothers-in-arms as well. Listen! You are already promoted, Monsieur Erwin. I may tell you that much. And so is your comrade, Blaine. Look! He already wears his decoration."
"Oh, well," said Orris wearily, "we didn't do so much after all. We did our bombing — what we were sent to do. Then we somehow had to go down in back of the Boche lines. While there we took that German machine. It was right handy, and no trouble. What else could I do but bring back your Bleriot, leaving Lafe here to do all the work of fetching in that Boche machine and the Boche himself? Got back all right, did you, Lafe. Looked to me when that other crowd tackled us as if you might have your hands full."
Blaine here smiled, nodded, and playfully rejoined:
"Looked to me as if you, too, would have some time getting back. And I guess you did too, by the way you look now."
All this was vaguely complimentary, yet rather overdoing the thing, or so Erwin seemed to feel, for he sighed and turned on his pillow as if weary.
At this juncture the ward door again opened and there walked in several uniformed men who had just stepped out of a military car, visible through the temporarily open door.
One of these strode forward, while the rest followed. This foremost one was of distinguished appearance and bore on arm and shoulder the insignia of a French general. The others were also in uniform, except for one who wore a frock coat.
Just at this minute another door opened and there entered a tall, squarely built form in United States khaki, but without decoration except for the stars of a major general modestly affixed to his straight, stiff coat collar.
"Why, there's General Pershing!" whispered Blaine, keeping his hand at the salute which he had intuitively begun upon the appearance of the French.
"Petain and Pershing!" gasped Orris to himself, yet turning wearily from a futile attempt at saluting like the rest.
The two commanders greeted each other cordially, though the meeting was rather unexpected on the part of both. Each had heard of the night bombardment which had taken place only a few days back. Pershing was on his way to some American billet not far from here. Petain, having already received reports of the recent exploits of the two airmen, and having decorated Blaine, was now bent upon doing similar things for this wounded American lad who had unwittingly been of such service to the French along its sector.
In a kindly and unassuming way Petain, now reinforced by the presence of the American general, complimented Orris on what he had done, concluding with: "Not only did you and your comrade capture and bring home a German aviator and his machine, but you have sent two others in the earth and, after all this, while hard pressed by the enemy, you managed to descend upon the foe right where they were preparing for secret attack. This you frustrated, at great physical cost to yourself. For all this my Government bestows upon you this decoration."
While all the staff looked on, with nurses and flyers respectfully in the background, the general pinned on Erwin's breast a decoration similar to that bestowed upon Blaine. Continuing, the general said:
"When you are again able to rejoin the squadron, you, like your friend, will find that your own government has not only approved, but rewarded you also for what you have done. Farewell!" The general with his escort left. General Pershing stopped only long enough to shake hands informally with those remaining, particularly with Cheval, Blaine and finally with Erwin. Walking with Sergeant Anson towards the door, the general turned, saying over his shoulder:
"It wouldn't surprise me a little bit if the heads of the American Corps at Washington did not send you two something in the near future. If they do, try and live up to it. Good-bye!"
He was gone. Monsieur Cheval had also followed, more slowly.
Blaine and Erwin looked at each other meaningfully.
"Reckon anything will happen, Lafe?"
"How should I know, Orry? Wait awhile and see."
Ten days later arrived two war medals, and two appointments; one for Blaine as sergeant in the aviation corps, the other for Orry as first corporal in the same.
THE PRACTICE DRILL
About the time that Corporal Orris Erwin was able to take his place again as a fighting aviator, Sergeant Blaine, returning from a long scouting raid over in the enemy's territory, met the boy in the broad drive of the aerodrome looking about him rather strangely. He threw an arm over Orry's shoulder, and drew him along to the door of the Aero Club.
"Been in here?" he asked. "It is great! They asking 'bout you the day we left. Heard about Cheval?"
Orris, not feeling like talking, shook his head, vouchsafing:
"Nothing only that he went along with your squadron at the last minute."
"Poor chap! He won't raid with us again. He went down near Essen. There was where we were to unload most of our bombs. But Archie got him. Down he went -" Blaine's eyes grew moist at the memory.
Erwin understood. "Nothing more?" he ventured.
"Nary thing, except that we gave the Krupp works hell for about fifteen or twenty minutes. You should have seen the explosions."
"That part was good. Say, Blaine," Orris, was looking, thoughtful, "has it ever struck you how terribly uncertain a thing life is —"
"Oh, rats!" Blaine shook his smaller companion as they neared the club door. "Stow that sort of talk and thought! Don't do you a bit of good or those that hear you. See?"
"Still, since my last flight with you, these thing will run across my mind. What is up now ? You in on anything yet?"
"I've heard — but don't whisper a word — that we're on for a job of sausage driving next. Nothing sure, though."
Sausages is the slang term for gas observation balloons which go up at certain points and observe the enemy's positions or maneuvers before and during battle on the earth below. Sausages do not fight back much but are protected by support battle planes and in other ways.
Reaching the clubroom door, they entered, Blaine pushing his comrade forward and saying with mock politeness:
"Let me present my comrade Erwin, or Orry, I like to call him. While doing the Boches the other day at Appincourte Bluff, the Boches came mighty nigh doing him. But here he is, what's left of him. Jolly him a bit. He feels bad!" The last tweak in allusion to Orry's remark on the uncertainty of life.
'There were a dozen or more of the air lads in the room and cigarette smoke tinged the air. Towards Erwin, now recovered after nearly a three week's "lay-off" on account of his burns and other wounds, there was a general rush of friendly hands and voices.
"Oh, you bully l'ill boy! If I hadn't been kept so busy would have gone round to jolly you up a bit. But I kept hearin' from you all the same."
This from Milton, or "Milt" Finzer, a Louisville lad, now in the Royal Flying Corps for more than a year. "Don't it seem wallopin' to see you in the clubroom again!"
"Orry, you stale mutt," this from an Americanized Pole, without a trace of foreign accent, "I'm too glad to see you to talk much about it. When we bombers got back from the raid that night and neither you nor Lafe had showed up, I felt bad enough. Later when Lafe came in with a German plane and a half dead Boche inside, we felt better. But we missed you, Orry."
"Did you really and truly miss me?" Erwin asked, this not in a spirit of doubt or incredulity, but only to hear his friend reemphasize it. One likes at times to have welcome truisms reechoed over again. It is human nature I suppose.
"Look here, Lex Brodno, you're a Pole —"
"Don't spring that on me again, even in joke I am an American, it my folks did come over from Warsaw."
"Bully! We're all one over here. That's the way to talk!" Erwin was getting back his old-time spirits. "All one in the good old U.S. All one over here — eh? Oh, you sinner!" The two walked over to a table, interrupted at every turn by those who wanted to welcome Orry back to the club again.
The following morning Erwin resumed his daily stunt of practice, but was heightened mightily in spirit by noticing in the hangar where he had usually gotten his machines a bright new scouting plane, small, with a tail like a dolphin's, an up-to-date machine gun mounted along the top, just where the one pilot at the wheel could handily squint through the sights.
"Why, it's British — one of their latest makes," informed Erwin, much pleased. "It's — let's see." He was squinting at the monogram. "B-X-3. No. 48."
Just then Blaine and Finzer strolled up.
"Going out for a little spin, Orry?" queried Blaine, throwing open wider the hangar door. "Look at 'em! Ain't they beauts?"
There was a row of eight of these snug-built machines, all the same type and monogram, all with machine guns strapped solidly to the fuselage of each, and with motors of great power and pliability.
"You can do anything with these chaps," remarked Milt, "except fly to the moon. But these motors would take you a long way. As for stunts like diving, circling, dipping, playing dead and the like, you never saw the like. I only hope we go out soon. I learn there's a new raid on the taps."
Blaine was nosing about one of the machines that was like the others, only a trifle larger and had an observer's seat behind the pilot's.
"That's your, Sergeant?" queried Erwin, slightly emphasizing the last word.
"Bet your bottee wootees, Corporal!" Another slight emphasis on the last word. "As for yours, take your pick. They're all exactly alike. We must go into preliminary practice today."
For an answer Erwin mechanically rolled out the machine he had first examined, and prepared for a short flight.
"After all, all, these are much like the planes we used at Vimy last year."
"Some improvements and stronger motors added thought," said Blaine. "Going to give it a try-out?"
"Yep! Thought I'd like to get my hand in a bit before we go out in squad formation." He nimbly vaulted into his seat over the rim of the fuselage, or the body of the machine, as two mechanics pushed forward behind the wings.
An upward flip and the alert planes rose gently into the air, and Erwin was off. His head was cool, his brain active, and more than all his hands were steady.
About this time Finzer had rolled out another plane and almost immediately rose behind Orris.
The two were at once climbing high, higher, until at an elevation of two to three thousand feet they began to circle, climb and dip in a way that reminded one of two high-flying birds playing at tag far up in the blue expanse of sky above.
Then Erwin's machine did a flip, bringing it above the other machine and "onto its tail," the favorable position for aerial attack. Suddenly Finzer turned his nose earthward and began a whirling dive. Erwin followed; the other coming at once into horizontal poise, turned his nose towards Erwin — the perfect position for pouring a rain of shot as the other passed.
Of course all this was mere practice, the full handed exercise of the fighting aviator, through which he keeps brain, eye and hand in trim against the perilous, heroic few seconds when he must fight to save his life and machine.
Meantime Blaine, along with Brodno, the Americanized Pole, and one or two others, strolled about, lazily watching the maneuvers above, and telling stories more or less related to their and fighting experiences flying.
Presently down came the two fliers, each with heightened color and full of that fresh buoyancy which short, lively flights are apt to create. Both were flippantly arguing as to which one had got the best of the other.
"I own up that I am a little bit stale, Milt. But you wait until we go out for squadron practice. I'll show you!"
"Yes, you will," replied Finzer, good-naturedly caustic. "Perhaps I'll show you another trick or two then."
And so the chaffing went on as the lads adjourned to the eating-house for lunch.
This meal over, a bugle sounded from the parade ground near the grove of trees. It was the general summons for squadron practice. As the boys filed out, each in full flying rig, they saw Commander Byers on the field, watching the mechanics roll out the machines. There were a dozen or more of the fighting planes, like those which Erwin and Finzer had used for morning practice. In the east, from over a monotonous expanse of scarred and war-torn country, came the sullen roar of artillery at the front, a stern reminder that real war was close at hand.
Each aviator at once mounted his own machine, Blaine as squad sergeant in the one he had indicated to Erwin earlier in the day. Erwin took his, while Finzer, Brodno, and a real American lad from Butte, Montana, were assigned to others of these fast, nimble, scouting planes that are really the wasps of the air, carrying their sting with them, always ready and willing to bite.
Meanwhile at each machine two mechanics, under the eye of the airman, went carefully over the mechanism until all were satisfied. Up they went, singly or in pairs, gyrating playfully, always climbing, and swooping higher, higher, until to the naked eye they became mere dots in the clear sky.
By this time it was noticeable that they had somehow divided into two squads or escadrilles; and at a signal from Commander Byers down below they began maneuvering like two hostile squadrons about to engage in aerial battle. Thereupon ensued a display of battle tactics that would have been bewildering to an unaccustomed spectator.
These vicious little fighting planes reminded one more of air insects than of birds. In their forward rushes many of them were doing more than two miles a minute.
"Watch out!" said the Commander, his glass at his eyes. "The Sergeant is going to loop."
True enough, Blaine's machine took a nose flip. He was riding upside down. Then he was level again. The rest of his squad followed suit, then followed their leader at a daring angle, all of them straight and level again. The first plane in the other line, driven by Erwin, began to loop the loop sidewise, rolling over and over, not unlike a horse rolls over when turned out to grass. The others behind him began much the same tactics while the first line drew away as if preparing for counter moves.
Beyond, in the further sky, two opposing machines having detached themselves from the rest were playing with each other like kittens with wings. One was making rapid evolutions, the other following, and clinging to the set course in a series of whirls with its own wing-tip as a pivot.
Below, the comments went on from the staff surrounding the Commander, who would say now and then:
"Look you there! Was that not fine?"
"Hard to beat," seemed to be the general verdict. "Fritz will have to open his eyes tomorrow."
And so the show above went on. A flock of little birds chirped and flopped past the group below. What pikers they seemed by comparison, with the show going on above — far above! And now they were descending in long spirals, each squad by itself, yet preserving the mathematical distance required, both from the opposing squad and at the same time keeping the line prescribed for such tactics during drills at the home grounds.
Particularly did Blaine distinguish himself in the daring of his stunts. Erwin was hardly behind him. They looped again, they rolled, they did the wing and tail slides, doing the last until they fell almost perpendicularly a thousand feet. Finally they righted hardly two hundred feet above the earth; then shot upward again at almost incredible speed.
And now the two leaders circled slowly as their respective squads followed on towards the ground, some falling, drifting like dead leaves, others slanting lazily as they passed the leaders, and on down, alighting at last each in his appointed place or thereabouts.
And then the two leaders began circling and swooping more and more rapidly until those below felt the whirring rush of air as the two planes swept by so low that one imagined that an arm would nearly touch them.
All hands knew it was rivalry — the rivalry of stunts. Yet to stand below and watch those steel engines falling down on you from the skies took the same kind of nerve to keep from dodging as only airmen themselves are gifted with by practice.
Finally all this drew to a close. The machines at last ranged themselves at opposite extremes of the landing stage and with a final swoop both were apparently upon the spectators as with the rush of a whirlwind. Yet, dizzy as it looked, it was mathematically timed. The two planes flattened as if by magic; they rose, dipped again and, passing each other in the down grade, saluted methodically as they passed the Commander. Ten seconds later their wheels dropped gently on the gravel at either end of the parade ground two tired looking aviators left their the waiting mechanics and walked soberly to the others.
The stunts were over for the day.
CATCHING THB SPY
"Well, well, Orry! How do you feel after your stunts of yesterday?"
This from Sergeant Blaine as he jumped from his bunk in the aerodrome dormitory the following morning just as the dawn was breaking.
Erwin, still drowsing, opened one eye. The next instant, remembering what the day probably hold in store for him, he threw off the covers and leapt from his bunk. At the same time, in order impress Blaine with his general fitness, he hit the big Sergeant a mock blow on the midwind region where, according to ring history, Fitzsimons dropped Corbett in their historic championship fight. Then he sprang back, arms and fists feinting.
"Can't you see how I feel?" he retorted. "Want to try me more?"
"Nit, you shyster, nit!" Blaine was laughing as he recovered, retreating and grimacing, as if in mock misery. "I don't want no more solar plexus stuff at this stage of the game. I guess you're all right."
"Bet your thick cocoanut I am! I was a bit drowsy at first. Say, Lafe, you know I must be in on this, whatever it is."
"Sure! I was at first a bit afraid that all those air stunts might have frazzled you a little, seeing you are just out of hospital."
"Honest Injun, Lafe, I'm all right! Don't you forget to remember that!"
"Well, then, get your clothes on. I want to talk to you private like." And Blaine sauntered off, lighting, a cigarette, while Erwin hastily put on his clothes. Going out soon, he encountered Blaine on the parade before the hangars where the starting of planes usually began.
It promised to be a lovely day. Not a cloud was in the sky. Off to the east a lone airplane was, soaring high over No-Man Is-Land, doubtless one of the night scouts that are maintained along that portion of the front.
"Last night after the rest of you had gone to the clubroom, Byers sent for me and told me briefly what he wanted us to attempt today. You know those sausages the Boches got now, over back of that bluff you unearthed the day you came home after our last raid?"
"Appincourte?" Orris blinked and nodded. "I ought to remember."
"Well, the French have tried a time or two to get them, but the Boche planes have been too much for them so far. Kept them so busy fighting back, they had no time to do much bombing. And now word has come from headquarters that they must go. Must! See?"
Erwin nodded. He took a deep breath, feeling already the lift in the pure morning air. Blaine continued:
"Well, Anson was to have headed this raid, but he's been promoted also. He's an ensign now. I am in his place and they made you corporal under me for two reasons. One was on account of the stunts you did along with me; then for what you did after you went on your own hook and busted into that Boche communicating trench which made them try to Archie you and thus exposed to us what they had done in making themselves at home under Appincourte Bluff."
"Yes, yes! Come to the point, Lafe! What is it you and I have got to do today, or whenever it comes off?"
"Don't be so impatient. The second reason is because they now think you have nerve enough for most anything, and that we two, working together might succeed in puffing off this sausage business best in our own way."
"You mean we are to bomb them where and when we please?"
"No — of course not! But Byers, who is the real head here, thinks you and I, taking as many other chaps along as we please, can force our way in our fighting planes to where these pesky gas keep hanging and spying on us, and literally blow them to dashed smithereens. See?"
"But how? Their Archies will blow us to Hades and be gone before we reach anywhere near. It looks like a forlorn hope —"
Blaine smiled, as he interrupted with:
'Like Balaklava, eh? Or old Pickett's third day charge at Gettysburg?"
Erwin did not reply. Blaine continued:
"If we go strong enough and swift and low enough, we'll got there; and, once there we'll do the bombing all righty!"
"And in broad daylight, too?"
"I don't say that, Orry. All this is strictly between you and me. Byers rather favors a daylight raid as affording a better chance to regain our own lines, either after bombing or in case we fail. But we're not going to fail . These dratted sausages have got to come down!"
"Are you sure they stay up at night?"
"Ever since we busted up that bluff you exposed, there they stay day and night, half a dozen or more. And my own notion is that if we have a new offensive here, which I think looks likely to a man up a tree, those blamed sausages will give the Boches too much leeway in nosing out ahead what we might be trying to do in getting ready."
"Well, what else? Will Captain Byers leave it to you? "
"I think he will . Having tried every other way and failed, he will let us — you and me in private but me in public, decide upon the way we'd prefer. Both of us have been over the ground. We know how far we have to go. I also know about what the Boches have got behind those balloons. It was only a few miles from there that we — you and me — got that Taube and the German aviator. Believe me, unless things have changed mightily, there isn't much there in the way of reinforcements or more planes or anything."
"You've been back there since?"
"You bet! Finzer and I went over there the day before you left the hospital. The Boches have no notion that our side is doing anything here, except air-raiding in No-Man's-Land or using our planes. That is one reason the headquarters thinks that it is a good place to — to do something."
"Well Lafe," Orris spoke deliberately, "you know I am with you. Tell me as much or as little as you please. I'll follow you to the last notch."
"I knew it!" Blaine grasped his comrade's hand and nearly wrung the fingers off. "Well, keep mum! Don't say anything to anybody but me. If Byers says anything, give him to understand you are in it from the word go, but no more. We'll win out again. Hear me?"
For reply, Erwin shook his released fingers, regarded Blaine with mock reproach, and volunteered:
"I'll agree to everything after that grip, I'm with you to the death. But don't do that again."
Blaine laughed gleefully as he turned away, patting Orris on the shoulder approvingly.
"I always thought you were a sticker, Orry."
"That's better 'n being a slicker or a slacker, isn't it?"
Again the big fellow laughed as he hurried off towards the Captain's quarters at the far end of the grounds.
The day passed quietly. From time to time, Blaine held private conferences with various members of the flying squad. These were mostly Americans who had either served a year or two at the western front, or were more recent arrival who had joined because of special aptitude for flying.
During the day sundry scouts penetrated here and there over the enemy lines and their report were favorable for the plan Blaine had in mind. A risky plan, yet promising well if skillfully carried out.
Towards night he had a last conference with Byers, who had more than hesitated over the proposed program, yet gave in before the Sergeant's enthusiasms.
"I agree," said the commander. "But it is risky. It can be done. Yet whether you are the man to do it — well, we'll know in the morning. Do your best. Be prudent; not too prudent; but at the same time try to be wise to things as they come up. Remember I have more responsibility than you. Your responsibility is only to me. It ceases where mine begins."
"Don't fear, Captain. Let what Erwin and I did the other night be duly considered. I need your full support —"
"Young man, you have it!" Here Byers took Blaine's hand and shook it heartily. "Bring back as many of your squad as you can, but above all carry out your program."
Night came, and with it a comfortable fog that rose white and misty, good for the purpose in hand. The clocks were pointing towards seven when something like a dozen men, wearing the regulation uniform, gathered at the usual open space, while from the doors of several hangars mechanics were silently rolling out machines.
Each aviator gave a few comprehensive looks and touches to his own plane, just to reassure himself that things were all right. Then came a brief moment or two of silent waiting. There were no, spectators. Even the rest of the men at the aerodrome did not appear. This was according to orders.
Out in front stood Captain Byers, attended by Blaine and Erwin, talking in low, indistinct tones. Finally Byers looked at his watch.
"Time's up, I guess. Do your best, you two. You, Blaine, will veer to the right as you approach the enemy trenches. You, sir," to Orris, "will draw to the left. Your squads will follow their respective leaders. Should you meet opposition before you reach the balloons, don't flinch. Pour on more speed. Don't signal unless necessary but obey signals when given. Au revoir, lads! Don't come back until you have delivered the goods."
Back went the Sergeant and Corporal, each to his own machine, which headed a short double line holding six planes, or a dozen in all.
At a quiet signal the leaders rose, spiraling into the upper darkness. Presently all had vanished, zigzagging in an easterly direction. About this time there came a sudden blue flare as a solitary rocket shot upward from beyond the grove of trees that that marked the landing place within the enclosed area that formed this aerodrome.
Instantly Byers was on the qui vive, he being nearest the point indicated by the blue flare. Bursting into a full run, he sped towards the spot, at the same time breaking in on several sentries unobtrusively posted about the grounds where the raiders had departed.
"Scatter lads!" he ordered. "Hurry! Spies at work! Halt any one you see, no matter who! Bring 'em in!"
Never halting in his race, he made directly for the spot whence the flare of the rocket had gone up. As he neared the trees, the sounds of a child's voice came to his ears, just inside the grove. It was remonstrating to some one.
"D — don't, papa! I — I want to get the pieces. My! Wasn't it pretty —"
Another voice, hoarse, gruff, stopped the childish words, but what it said was indistinguishable. Byers looked around. Two of his sentries were near, all of them running.
"Did you hear that child?" queried the captain. "Scatter! Don't let either child or the grow one escape. Be spry! Watch out!"
As Byers uttered the last exclamation, a running figure emerged from the shadow of the nearer trees and started full tilt towards the quarters where the cook's galley was. All three, running hard had slightly scattered, in order to intercept the fugitive should he try to dodge amid the various buildings.
Swift as were the pursuers, the fugitive was more speedy.
At one instant they saw him in a twinkling of light from one of the open doors. The next instant the form was gone. There came a faint echo of half-smothered infantile cries.
Byers dashed by the lighted door, then stumbled over a small form on the ground and there rose another wail, now of terror if not of pain.
Quickly the captain picked up the small figure in big arms and ran on, holding it gently, yet firmly, and saying:
"There, there, little one! I won't hurt you!"
"D — don't you hurt my pa, " wailed the small figure in his arms. "He — was only making show for me —" More crying.
Where was the man? Only one clew had the captain. The fellow was round-shouldered, or seemed so in the glimpse Byers caught of them just before he dropped the child. Presently, one after another of the sentries came in, breathless yet unsuccessful. Somehow the fugitive had vanished, and look as they might, no further sign of him was seen.
"Skip around some more!" ordered the captain. "Try every door you pass. The fellow must be around somewhere. Call me if necessary. I'll be on hand."
While the baffled sentries did as directed Byers who was a father himself, placed the child on a convenient bench beside him, patting its head soothingly with one hand while he searched his pockets with the other. Then he produced the remnant of a package of chocolate drops, part of the contents of a box recently received from home.
"Like candy?" he asked, putting some of the candy in the child's lap. "Good candy — right, from my home across the sea."
This in such French as Byers could command, which was plenty for the purpose. At first the child, whom he now perceived was a girl, would not try it, but presently a sight of the sweet was more than it could stand.
Seizing the offered sweets, it began to eat greedily.
"My papa have no sweets like this," munching greedily. "Who you? Where my papa?"
"Know where your pa stays? I take you back to him."
For an answer the girl jumped down, still clutching the candy. She took Byers' hand, leading him back by another alley amid buildings here devoted to the culinary department of that cantonment. One of the sentries appeared. The child pushed on, leading Byers, who cautioned the sentry to say nothing, but to follow.
"What is your papa's name?" asked the captain.
"He name Bauer — Monsieur Bauer —" The child suddenly stopped.
"What is the matter, little one?" asked Byers, pulses thrilling under a vague suspicion. But here the sentry, forgetting the captain's caution, interposed with:
"I know him, Sir! Hermann Bauer, our assistant quartermaster -"
'Hush-h-h!" admonished Byers, frowning, shaking his head and pointing at the child, now staring at him wonderingly, then pouting as she queried:
"You no hurt my papa?"
The door of a nearby house suddenly flew open and a fleshy, round-shouldered man appeared. He saluted, then said:
"Good evening, Messieurs! I see you have my little girl with you."
"Monsieur Bauer!" The captain stood up, ignoring the other's salute. "I suppose you know that you are now under arrest?"
"It is what I feared. May I take my little girl inside?"
"Yes, provided the sentry and I go with you."
"You may as well: you'll go anyway. Please do not give me away."
With remarkable nerve, Bauer lifted the wondering child to his arms and led the way inside.
Five minutes later he emerged, the captain and the sentry on either side, and set out amid childish protests from within.
"She overtook me while I was on my way," he confessed. "It is fate, I guess."
Then the three started on the way to aerodrome headquarters.
About this time came the sounds of heavy firing over No-Man's-Land.
"That is one result of your rocket, Bauer, Byers, grimly.
DOWNING THE SAUSAGES
Once clear of the Allied front line of trenches, the double platoon of planes spread out on either hand, flying swiftly yet keeping near the earth. This was strange for so formidable a squadron of fighting, one-man planes that usually soar up to lofty heights, far from the direct range Fritzy's Archies.
But their instructions were clear, and each trained pilot knew just what he had to do. Swiftly and still more swiftly they flew. The night mists, growing yet more opaque, promised, favorably. Appincourte Bluff, just beyond the little river, could hardly be seen at all, but the roar of the motors overhead indicated that something might be on the wing. Without question few advance sentries still remained near the ruins that once had been a capacious subterranean chamber. From there the Germans had doubtless expected to emerge in assault, while their artillery made the essential barrage to stay any possible resistance while their infantry crossed the stream. But the Allied bombardment, made possible by Erwin's daring final flight across the Bluff towards his own quarters, had made Appincourte futile so far as that assault went. Still Fritz might be there. He was there — that is, a few of him. They were watching for a signal - the blue flare of a rocket that should tell Fritz of another air raid.
But the noise of motors close above confused his calculations. Why were the Entente airmen flying so low? Might they not be up to more devilment with regard to Appincourte? The blue flare had gone up.
But it happened that Fritz did not see it. Fearing now that many bombs might be dropped their defenseless heads, and with the whir of many motors in their ears, all the time growing louder, nearer, the small squad of night sentries, scudded as one man for the small dugout. This had been made immediately after the Bluff was wrecked by the bombardment. In there they cuddled, expecting the deafening explosion of many bombs over or on their heads, determined to fly back to their advanced trenches at the first let-up of the expected deluge.
But no bombs descended. The motor thunderings passed, then dwindled, but towards the east. What did that mean?
Their sergeant was telephoning hurriedly as to what was happening: "Airplane motors close overhead. No bombing yet. Watch out."
Thus it happened that Bauer's first (and last) signal was rendered void insofar as it went. The raiders escaped the German fire for the time being. Moreover, they were puzzled. Why should the Allied "schwein" fly so low, yet do no harm where once they had wrecked things only a few days before? What were they up to, anyhow?
This query was not answered at once. The telephones roused the Huns in the front trenches. Yet it puzzled them, too. Hitherto the bombing on both sides had been done mostly from far above. Such skimming the ground across No-Man's-Land might mean anything.
Presently the thrum of approaching planes became more and more audible along that portion of the front.
From his plane Blaine made private signal to the others to put on all speed. Erwin did likewise. Consequently it was not a minute before the raiders were upon the front trenches, going at the rate of two miles a minute. Each man in those planes sat with an open nest of hand grenades within easy reach. The handle of the gun crank was handy, its deadly muzzle pointed along the top of the fuselage of each mobile plane.
Then a pistol shot rang out, and at the signal grenades were dropped as the now far extended line passed over those open trenches in which troops were massed. For, be it known, that fatal blue flare from the aerodrome a dozen or more miles away had filled those trenches yet more full of human cannon fodder. Hence the bombing was all the more deadly.
Passing the trenches, at another signal, the hostile planes nimbly wheeled, shot back again and poured forth more bombs upon those trenches. Still again they wheeled and traversed them for the third time.
By this time machine guns began to spatter their deadly contents among the darting planes, while further back the anti-aircraft guns gave forth searching roars as to what they might should a plane be hit.
It was enough so far as it went. Now for the gas-bags, the sausages; for these observation balloons were the real object of all this nocturnal pother.
"Forward!" came the signal again and, steering to the left, rising higher from the forty to fifty foot level they had hitherto kept, the squadron made for the rear line. Here rose a shadowy line of oval bags, so shaped as to qualify them for the term "sausage" as humorously fitted to these defenseless spying observatories. In daytime their elevation enabled them to see over a great expanse of that level, war-ruined region.
There they were, open carriages below, in each a small group of Fritzies with machine gun and bombs handy for use in times like the present. But here, too, Fritz was at a decided disadvantage.
Evidently no raid was anticipated, for here they swung, hardly half manned except by the few constituting the night watch. In and out among them shot the fast planes, the machines belching their deadly hail, with Fritz apparently too dazed by surprise to make much resistance.
Using explosive bullets that would flare sparks of fire at the moment of contact, soon those bags of gas were ignited, one after another. Down rope ladders the occupants climbed or dangled, dropping off to hit the ground maimed or lifeless. By this time, however, the Archies were pouring a rain of shells from the machine guns at the assailants with murderous and often fatal effect.
One plane after another sagged, lamely drooped and went to earth crippled or in flames. It so happened that Blaine and Erwin nearly met in, mid-air as each verged close in a final assault on the last balloon.
Seizing his megaphone, Blaine shouted:
"We'll down this one, then home!"
Bang - puff! A burst of flame enveloped the last sausage, and Blaine was already mounting higher, higher, when he saw Erwin's plane go zigzagging earthward at a gentle angle. One of his wings had been shattered, the remnants flopping as they fell. Orris, working at the controls, partially righted, then staggered on, and finally mounted upward, showing his chief that he would make the home trip if nothing further happened.
Blaine himself tried to follow. But something was wrong. He fell, half gliding, and finally landed with his planes too much shot to up for the machine to float longer.
"I'm a goner, unless something happens," he thought.
"Where was he? In that last staggering rise the sergeant was vaguely aware that just beyond some trees under him was an open space of some kind. Could he make that open space? The front enemy trenches and the line where the vanished gas bags had swung were behind him.
"Seems to me I saw one of our planes drifting over this way."
On earth it was darker, more misty, more impenetrable than it had been overhead. His watch, having an illuminated dial, indicated that the time was about ten o'clock. In his rear the darkness was more dense than ahead. Probably his plane had dropped just in the edge of that open space he thought he had dimly seen while up in the air.
While looking over his machine as best he could to see if there was any chance to tinker it up so as to make another flight, he stopped short, his pulse leaping. Then he stood motionless.
"What was that?" he kept thinking, keeping as quiet as possible.
After a lengthy interval he heard rustling amid the trees near by, then a subdued crashing limbs, then an unintelligible moan or groan. After that came a heavy shock as if something or some one had struck the earth.
"I must look into this," he reflected, listening now also for any other sounds of human presence. But all was still near by. Back west there came the dying echoes of the recent scrimmage with the raiders. Hans, having gotten the worst end that deal, seemed to have subsided.
"Fritzy is preparing to look into things. He must know that some of us were knocked out. Doubtless he is getting ready for a more thorough look around."
Without formulating any definite plan, Blaine headed towards where the last sounds of some thing or some one falling had come from. To the left came the far rumble of trains crawling forward on one of the many side lines used by the Huns for war transportation.
From the right came the distant roar of heavy artillery, such as enlivens the front night and day. Yet it was so distant as to insure no connection with the finished air raid that now threatened disaster to himself.
Under the trees the darkness deepened, if such was possible. Where was he going? Could he find his way back to his own crippled plane?
A heavy, yet trembling sigh, terminating in a muffled groan, showed him his next course. Stumbling forward, he almost fell over a body prone across his path. Another groan, then:
"Oh-h-h, Gawd — Gawd!" Blaine thought he recognized something half familiar in the words or voice.
Stooping down, he felt a horrible slime and a mashed something that was not like anything he had ever felt before. He dropped to his knees, drew out his small flashlight, hitherto held in reserve for desperate emergencies, and cautiously turned it on.
It glimmered across a face — a face at once familiar and horrible. A well-known face, yet so ghastly in its bloody disfigurement that Blaine shivered, drew back, then bent downward and forward.