Yancey stepped from the group and pointed up.
"I reckon that's him up yonder," he said in the slow drawl that was doubly maddening at such a moment. "He blew in here a few minutes ago like a Texas Panhandle twister, ordered the greaseballs to roll his plane on the line, and was off before she was good and warm. I reckon—"
Larkin did not wait to learn what Yancey reckoned. He dashed toward the hangar, shouting orders as he ran.
Major Cowan stepped from the hangar, barring the way. "Just a minute, Lieutenant! What is it you want?"
"What do I want? I want a plane on the line—quick!"
"No! Lieutenant McGee took off before we knew what it was all about. It is madness. You can't have—"
He stopped speaking to listen. From high above, and a little to the east, came the throbbing sound of German motors that in a few more seconds would be over the airdrome. Indeed, they might be circling now, getting their bearing and making sure of location. At that moment one of the large motor mounted searchlights near the hangar began combing the sky.
"Go tell those saps to cut that light!" Larkin shouted, hoping that the Major would be stampeded into action that would provide the slenderest chance for him to get the mechanics to roll a Spad to the line before Cowan could know what was happening. "Better cut it! If the others can't find 'em, this one can't. It will only serve as a path of light for one of those babies up there to slide down and leave you some presents you don't want."
Major Cowan was not one to go legging it about on errands. Besides, searchlights were provided for just such uses. Then too, he rather suspected Larkin's motives, and Larkin realized this.
"Please let me have one of those Spads, Major," he pleaded. "Can't you understand—McGee and I are buddies. With two of us up there we might turn 'em back."
"No! It is too hazardous. This squadron is still in training. We are not trained as night flyers, and certainly are not prepared to give combat to a flight of bombers."
Larkin's anger smashed through his long training. All rank faded from his mind.
"Not trained, eh? Major Cowan, that freckle-faced kid up there is a night flying fool—and I'm his twin brother. Get out of my way. Oh, greaseballs! Hey, you Ack Emmas! Roll out one of those Spads and—"
"Lieutenant!" Cowan barked. "You forget yourself. If you want to do night fighting go over to your own group and use your own plane! You forget yourself. I am still in command here!"
From aloft came the momentary stutter of two machine guns. Ah! McGee testing and warming his guns as he climbed. Oh, the fool! The precious, daring fool!
Larkin sat down on the tarmac, ker plunk! Let 'em raid. What mattered it? He rather hoped one of them would be accurate enough to plant a bomb on the top of Cowan's head.
"Yes, you are in command," he said, rather limply, "but why didn't you stop McGee? And since you are in command, in Heaven's name tell that light crew to cut that light. It would be just their fool, blundering luck to spot McGee and hold him for the Archies."
McGee, holding up the nose of his Camel at an angle that gave the motor every ounce it would stand, was thinking the same alarming thought that had just run through Larkin's mind. It would be just his luck to be spotted by the searchlight crew and held in its beam. If so, would they recognize him? Would they see the ringed cockades on his wings, or would eager anti-aircraft gunners start blazing away? Even if they recognized the plane, his whole plan would be knocked into a cocked hat should that telltale streamer of light point him out to the enemy planes above who must now be looking sharp. Darkness was both his ally and his foe.
McGee was too experienced to have any mistaken notions about the hazard of his endeavor. He knew what he was up against. In the first place, any bombing plane was a formidable foe, and he could not know how many were coming on this mission. All bombers were heavily armed, and had the advantage of having at least one man free to repel attack with twin machine guns. Many of the heavier German bombing planes carried crews of four or five men, though these were used in attack on highly important bases and would hardly be sent on a mission of this nature. Such machines were quite slow and not capable of being manoeuvered quickly, but their very size added to their invulnerability and their heavy armament made them a thing to be avoided by any single fighter mounted in a pursuit plane. Many pursuit pilots had learned the bitter lesson attached to a thoughtless, poorly planned attack upon a bomber or two-seater observation bus. They looked like an appetizing meal—but one must have a strong stomach if he finishes the feast.
McGee knew, also, that the oncoming raiders might be pursuit planes converted into bombers by the simple expedient of attaching bomb releases carrying lighter pellets of destruction which could be released by the pilot. This was not an unusual procedure, especially when the success of the venture might hinge upon speed. Such planes could strike swiftly, more easily avoid Archie fire, and having struck their blow could outdistance any antagonist with the nerve to storm through the night sky in pursuit.
So, as McGee climbed he realized that he was facing the unknown. The prospect of a raid had been his challenge; the size and strength of his enemy was unknown. So be it, he thought, and warmed his guns with a short burst as he continued climbing. Their quick chatter served to reassure him and for the moment he quite forgot how useless they would be should he chance to go crashing into one of the bombers. He felt that all would be well if only those saps on the ground would cut that searchlight. Didn't they know that it would simply serve as a guide to the plane whose mission it would be to dive at the field and release ground flares to mark the target for the bombers? Of course they wouldn't think of that. Green! And with a lot to learn.
Two or three times the beam of light flashed perilously near him, and once his plane was near enough to the edge of the beam for the glass on his instrument board to reflect the rays. Then, a moment later, the glaring one-eyed monster dimmed, glowed red, and darkness leaped in from all sides. But only for a moment. Other lights, from more distant points, were still combing the sky. These concerned Red not so much as the one near the hangar. Strangely, as is the way with men at war, he cared not so much what wrath might be called down on other places if only his own nest remained unviolated. Indeed, he found himself entertaining the hope that the raiders might become confused and drop their trophies in somebody else's back yard.
Then, as suddenly as a magician produces an object out of the thin air, one of the distant searchlights fixed upon one of the enemy planes. It was a single seater, McGee noted, and though somewhat southeast of the position he had expected, it was already pointing its nose down on a long dive that would undoubtedly carry it to a good position over the 'drome for dropping flares.
McGee knew the tactics. This was the plane whose job it was to spot the target for the bombers and then zoom away. Then the vultures would come droning over the illuminated field and drop their eggs.
Red kicked his left rudder and came around on a sharp climbing bank. By skill, or by luck, the light crew still held their beam on the black-crossed plane and in a twinkling two other lights were centered on it.
McGee made a quick estimate of distance and of the other's flying speed. Then he nosed over, slightly, on a full throttle, and drove along a line which he thought would intersect the dive of the enemy. He could hardly hope to get him in the ring sights; it was a matter of pointing the plane in what he thought was the correct line of fire and let drive with both guns.
The wind was beginning to scream and tear at the struts of the hard-pushed Camel. Speed was everything now. If that diving German plane once dropped its flares, the others, somewhere in the darkness above, would sow destruction on the field.
The distance was yet too great for anything like effective fire, but McGee decided to take a chance. After all, the whole thing was chance. He had one chance in a thousand to thwart their plans, very slim chances for bagging one of them, and some excellent chances to get bagged!
"Very well," he found himself saying in answer to these swift thoughts. "Carry on!"
Rat-tat-tat-tat-tat! Both his guns began their scolding chatter. Too far to the right—and below. He ruddered left and pulled her nose up a trifle. There! Again the guns spewed out their vengeful chorus.
At this second burst the German plane seemed to yaw off, then righted itself, leveled off and flew straight at McGee.
Red felt a momentary elation that the enemy had at least been made conscious of the attack and was, for the moment, forced to abandon his objective. Two beams of light still held him mercilessly. Doubtless they served to blind him and this advantaged McGee who, unseen in the darkness, kept his Vickers going. Some of the bullets must have gone home for the German swerved suddenly and began a series of acrobatics in an effort to escape the lights. But disturbed as he was, he evidently kept his mission in mind for he continued to lose altitude and thus draw nearer the field where he could drop his flares.
McGee decided to nose over and then zoom up under his belly—by far the most vulnerable point of attack but one in which the moment of fire is brief indeed, for Camels will not long hang by their "props."
Just as McGee dived the enemy swerved quickly and also began a dive. His diving angle was sharp; his speed tremendous. Doubtless he had determined to carry out his mission and get away from an exceedingly hot spot as quickly as possible. By the fortunes of war his diving angle cut directly across McGee's path. Close—almost too close! A brief burst spat from McGee's Vickers in that heart-chilling moment when collision seemed inevitable, but McGee pulled sharply back on his stick and zoomed. Whew! It was no cinch, this fighting a light-blinded enemy.
McGee glanced back. The lights had lost the plane as suddenly as they had found it. Night had swallowed it. Now there was an unseen enemy that might—
Ah! McGee sucked in his breath sharply. A tiny tongue of flame was shooting through the sky. For a second it was little more than the flame of a match, but in a few seconds it developed into greedy, licking flames that turned the German plane into a flaming rocket. The pilot, manfully seeking escape from such a death, began side slipping in a vain effort to create an upward draft that would keep the flames from incinerating him in his seat. For the briefest moment he did a first class job of it, and McGee, who a minute before had been hungry for victory, felt first a wave of admiration for a skillful job of flying and next a surge of pity that it must be of no avail. Even now the plane was wobbling out of control ... then it nosed over and plunged earthward, a flaming meteor.
Fascinated, McGee watched the plunge, climbing a little as he circled. He was three times an ace with two for good measure, seventeen victories in the air, but this was his first night flamer. It was far more spectacular than he could have imagined ... and somehow a little more unnerving. A moment ago that doomed creature had been a man courageous enough to undertake any hazard his country demanded. Enemy or no, he was a man of courage and in his own country was a patriot.
McGee felt very weak, and not at all elated. After all, he knew there were no national boundaries to valor or patriotism, and however sweet the victory it must always carry the wormwood of regret that the vanquished will see no more red dawnings and go out on no more dawn patrols. That plunging, flaming plane was as a lighted match dropped into a deep well—the deep well of oblivion.
The plane struck the earth some three or four hundred yards to the west of the 'drome. The flames, leaping afresh, lighted up the entire vicinity. McGee, looking down, could see the dim outline of the hangar tent and the running figures that were racing toward the burning plane. He smiled, rather grimly, and his eyes searched the heavens above him. The vultures had their target now!
At that moment one of the restless searchlights singled out one of the bombers, high above him, and two other streams of light leaped to the same spot. Another plane was caught in the beam. The anti-aircraft now had their target, and they lost no time. There came two or three of the sharp barks so characteristic of anti-aircraft guns, and coincident with the sound the bursting shells bloomed into great white roses perilously near the leading plane. It rocked, noticeably, and shifted its course. Then, seemingly, all the Archies in the countryside, within range and out of range, began filling that section of the sky with magically appearing roses that in their blooming sent steel balls and flying fragments searching the sky.
The upper air was quickly converted into an inferno of bursting shells and whining missiles of jagged steel. The enemy bombers, due to the delay caused by McGee's unexpected attack upon the plane whose mission it had been to drop the ground flares, had now worked themselves into a rather awkward formation and were faced with the responsibility of making instant decision whether they should now release their bombs in a somewhat hit or miss fashion or run for it and individually select some other spot for depositing their T.N.T. hate as they made their way homeward.
The embarrassment of their position was but little greater than that of McGee's. The burning plane offered sufficient light for landing, but it was also lighting up the hangars and the field, and he momentarily expected the enemy to let go with their bombs. It would not be pleasant down there when those whistling messengers began to arrive. His present position was equally unhealthy, even though he had considerably reduced his altitude. Any minute—yes, any second—some searchlight crew might pick him up, and there is never any telling what an excited anti-aircraft battery crew might do.
McGee made the decision which is always reached by an airman who finds himself in unhealthy surroundings: he would simply high-tail it away from there until "the shouting and the tumult" subsided. He swung into the dark sky to the north and then dived down until he felt that any less altitude would be extremely likely to bring him afoul of some church steeple or factory smokestack.
One of the German pilots decided to take a chance and release his bombs. Their reverberating detonations were terrifying enough, but aside from the ugly holes they made in the open field, some five hundred yards away from the 'drome, they accomplished nothing in the balance of warfare. The other planes, finding the welcome a bit too warm, took up a zig-zag course toward the Fatherland, but in a general course that would take them back over Nancy, where they could find a larger target for their bombs.
McGee, looking back, could see the searchlights sweeping eastward in their efforts to keep the fleeing planes spotted. But their luck had already been great indeed, and now they were again feverishly searching the black and seemingly empty sky.
"Good time to tool this baby home," McGee thought as he swung around and headed for the 'drome, its location still well marked for him by the flickering flames of the fallen ship.
"Poor old Nancy!" he said aloud as he realized that the thwarted bombers would likely spew out their hate on that sorely tried city. "I'm sorry to wish this off on you, but you are used to it and these lads are not. Talk about luck! I wonder what good angel is perched on my shoulder."
Back over the 'drome he signaled with his Very light pistol for landing lights, his take-off having been too sudden to permit of thinking of ground flares. He circled the field, waiting for the lights. No response. He signaled again. Still no response.
"Too much excitement, I guess," he mused. Then he flew low over the remains of the burning plane, around which had gathered a large group—large enough, McGee thought, to include every man of the squadron from the C.O. down to the lowliest greaseball.
"Humph! A fine target you'd make!" Red snorted, and felt like throwing his Very pistol into the group. "Well, here goes! I've made darker landings than this. And if I crack up—" he smiled as a grim Irish bull flashed through his mind—"it will be a good lesson to the ground crew. Nothing like Irish humor at a time like this."
If one who stands less than five feet six and is freckled of face and red of hair can command hauteur and dignity, then it can be said that a few minutes later McGee, with hauteur and dignity, strode into the excited, gabbling group that surrounded the burning German plane. For a moment none of them recognized him. With hands on hips, arms akimbo, he stood watching them. He was still just a little too mad to trust his tongue.
Major Cowan was the first to notice him. "Ah! Lieutenant McGee! I am—"
"No sir, I am Lieutenant McGee's ghost. McGee got his neck broken over there just now—trying to make a landing in the dark. Your ground crew were exceedingly helpful to him, Major. So nice of them to obey his signals so promptly."
For once Cowan was at a disadvantage. "Gad, man! Did you signal?"
"Oh, yes. I waved my hand. Rather original idea, don't you think? Perhaps you weren't expecting me to come back."
"Frankly, Lieutenant, I wasn't." The look on Cowan's face was one of genuine admiration. "You have done a courageous thing, Lieutenant—and I thought it foolhardy. I said as much to Lieutenant Larkin, and I apologize to you, here, in the presence of all these men who witnessed your courage."
All the others thereupon surged around McGee, pumping his hand vigorously and clapping him on the back.
McGee's anger faded. It was a thing that never stayed long with him.
"Is Larkin here?" he asked.
"He was," Cowan answered. "Came a few minutes after you took off, but when I refused him a ship he got mad as a hornet, bawled out the light crew and—and me, and then jumped back in his car and rode off. Rather tempestuous fellow."
"If he had stayed here," McGee said, regretfully, "my Camel wouldn't now be standing over yonder on its nose with its undercarriage wiped off. He'd at least think of landing lights." He pushed his way through the crowd toward the burning embers of the twisted, broken and charred plane. "Pilot burned to a crisp, I suppose," he mused half aloud.
Hampden, who was standing nearest, answered:
"No, the poor devil jumped. Landed over there by the road. They carried him over to the hospital tent. Not a—a whole bone in his body." His voice seemed choked. "It's a—a fearful way to go."
"A sporting way, I would say," Siddons spoke up. "Even in the last moment he rather cheated you, McGee. He escaped the flames, anyhow."
McGee looked at Siddons searchingly. In those cold grey eyes and in the half-taunting smile there was none of the sympathy or natural, normal emotion that had so choked Hampden's voice.
"He did not cheat me, Lieutenant Siddons," McGee said, his voice edged by his dislike of the man. "I am only one of the small factors in this unfortunate game. Duty may be pursued without wanting to see others suffer. He was a brave man. I salute him." He turned to Cowan. "Major Cowan, if your crew had attempted to extinguish these flames we might have added a great deal to our knowledge of the progress the enemy is making. I could not recognize this plane in the air. I think it is a new type."
"By Jove! I never thought of it."
McGee turned away to conceal an expression which he could not control, and as he did so he heard Yancey growl to Hampden:
"What a first-rate kitchen police in a Home Guard outfit that bimbo would make!"
As McGee walked back toward the hangar, Hampden and Siddons joined him. He felt Hampden give his elbow a congratulatory squeeze. Then Siddons said:
"Are you going over to have a look at your fallen adversary, Lieutenant?"
"Oh, I say, Siddons!" Hampden exclaimed, pained and surprised.
"I am going to make out my report," McGee answered, simply. "I wonder if you would like to give me a confirmation, Lieutenant Siddons?"
The question took Siddons off his feet. "Why—er—do you really want me to?"
"Not especially; I just had a feeling that you would be pleased to have your name brought in it somehow."
Several of the pilots followed McGee into the hut used for headquarters, but Siddons was not among them. Whatever his feelings, following the little instructor's pointed rebuke, he concealed them behind the cool indifference which marked all of his actions. At the door to headquarters he turned down the gravel walk that ran in front of the row of huts used as quarters and was soon lost to sight in the darkness.
McGee's report of his victory was characteristically laconic. Not a word did he employ that was not necessary to the report. No fuss, no feathers, no mock heroics. He had engaged an E.A. (enemy aircraft) and had sent it down in flames. Reading the report, one would find little enough to lift it out of the usual run of reports. Another meeting; another victory. No more, no less. Only in the last paragraph did he depart from his usual method of reporting. He wrote:
"My Camel carried no ground flares. Twice signaled for landing lights with no response. Circled field. Entire personnel was gathered around burning E.A. and making no effort to extinguish fire, which by this time had nearly consumed plane. Forced to land in dark. Wiped out landing gear and shattered prop.
"Recommendation: That all commands advise ground crews that a live pilot is of more importance than a dead enemy."
Having finished, he looked up at those who had followed him into headquarters. They were gathered in little groups, excitedly discussing the victory, which had actually been the first encounter they had witnessed. Fortunately, the victory had been on their side and they were considerably bucked. It seemed dead easy. Why, one man had gone aloft, bagged a plane, thwarted the plans of the enemy and was back on the ground before you could tell about it. The war was looking up! And this instructor was no slouch. What this squadron wouldn't do to the enemy when an over-cautious Chief of Air Service said "Let's go!"
Hearing their comments, McGee smiled. He knew, better than they, the great element of luck in his victory.
The enemy, whose aim it had been to thoroughly frighten and subdue this green squadron, had succeeded instead in greatly increasing their confidence in themselves. The enemy had come to sow destruction; they had actually planted a seed that sprang instantly from the ground, bearing the bold and sturdy flower of self-confidence. Old dogs of war had been unleashed, and now a new pack was yelping on the trail.
"Where is Major Cowan?" McGee asked.
"Over at the hospital tent," someone answered.
"Oh, I see. Perhaps it's just as well. He might not care to sign a confirmation after reading my recommendation. Which one of you will give me a confirmation?"
As one man they surged forward.
"Just a minute!" Red laughed. "I said which one. On second thought I guess I'd better leave that to the C.O. First victory from his squadron, you know."
"His squadron nothing!" Yancey growled. "You don't belong to us—yet."
"No, but I'm here by assignment; I wouldn't want to hurt anyone's feelings." He chuckled. "I'm afraid, though, that the last paragraph in this report has a sort of stinger in it."
"Let's see it," Hampden urged.
McGee handed him the report. Hampden read it, whistled softly and passed it to Yancey, who read quite as slowly as he talked. A look of disappointment spread over his face.
"It's a report, I reckon," he said slowly, "but it's about as satisfyin' as a mess of potato chips would be to a hungry cowhand. It's as thin as skimmed milk. Say, who won this fight? You or the other fellow?"
"I believe that report will give me the credit," McGee answered.
"Maybe. And that last paragraph will win somebody a bawlin' out. Cowan will ask you to change that. Looks like inefficiency on somebody's part."
"Perhaps it is. It goes as it stands. After all, it goes through channels to the Royal Flying Corps, you know. I'm flying their ship and still under their orders."
"Well, when I get my first one," Yancey replied, "believe me, they'll get the full details, and when they get through readin' it they'll think I'm the bimbo what invented flyin'. Those white-collared babies at Headquarters have to get all their thrills secondhand, and this thing of yours is about as thrillin' as the minutes of a Sunday School Meeting."
At that moment Mullins, the peppery little Operations Officer, entered the room, his face a mass of wrinkling smiles. He walked over to the desk where McGee was seated and from his pockets dumped out a double handful of articles, such as army men had learned to list under the broad heading—"Souvenirs." There was a wrist watch, a German automatic pistol, a silver match box, a leather cigarette case, a belt buckle bearing the famous "Gott Mit Uns" and a number of German paper marks.
For a moment McGee sat staring at them, then slowly pushed his chair back from the table as he looked up at the smiling Mullins.
"What's this—stuff?" he asked.
"Souvenirs, of course! From your latest victory. Cowan and I decided to go over to the hospital and run through the chap's pockets to see if we could find anything that should be sent back to Intelligence. Darned if Siddons wasn't there ahead of us, getting ready to fill his pockets with your souvenirs. I told him to wait until he bagged his own game. So there you are—cups, belts and badges!"
McGee gathered up the articles, one by one, and handed them back to Mullins.
"Take them back," he ordered, somewhat firmly.
"What!" Mullins' jaw dropped. "You don't want 'em?"
"Not even one—for luck?"
"No. I've never carried anything that belonged to the other fellow, for luck. Take them back."
Yancey stepped forward, but he was still behind the soft-voiced Edouard Fouche, who said:
"I'll take them, then. I'm not so high-minded about it."
Tex Yancey pawed Fouche aside as a bear might sweep aside an annoying puppy. "Out of the way, little fellow. We'll divide these spoils of war—or we'll draw for 'em. Everyone to draw straws."
"Wait!" McGee interposed himself between Mullins, Yancey, and the indignant Fouche. "If you boys want souvenirs, go out and get them for yourself. Mullins told Siddons to wait until he bagged his own game. That goes here, too. Take 'em back, Mullins. A man of courage has a right to his personal belongings—even after he is dead. Take them back and let them be buried with him. By the way," he turned back to the desk and picked up his report, "I want a confirmation from Major Cowan. Where is he?"
"Oh, I forgot to tell you," Mullins replied. "He just jumped in a side car and went streaking off to Wing, looking like he thought the war had been won. And he took with him a nice little plum for Intelligence. We found an order in that pilot's pocket that should have been left behind."
"Indeed? What was it?" McGee asked.
"It was in German, of course," Mullins continued, "and Cowan is as rotten in German as I am. But Siddons is a shark at it. Speaks half a dozen languages, you know, and—"
"No, I didn't know," McGee answered, cryptically.
"Yeah, reads it like English. That order was to the effect that their high command had received information that several air units were located in this sector, and ours, in particular, was placed to a T. It was an order for a bombing group to come over and give us an initiation. 'Highly important! Highly important!' Cowan said, and busted off for Wing. To watch him you'd think he had brought down the plane. It's strange, though, how those square-heads find out every move that is made on this side of the line."
"They have a wonderful spy system," McGee said. "We learned that well enough up on the English front, where we had reason to feel sure of the loyalty of every soldier. But the leaks get through. Cowan was right, the order was highly important. The Intelligence Department do some clever work with the bits of information gathered from first one place and another. It's somewhat like piecing an old-fashioned pattern quilt. A piece here, a piece there, all seemingly unrelated but in the end presenting a distinct pattern. Yes, it's important, I dare say."
Mullins sighed, heavily. "Well then, I suppose Cowan will come back here with a chest on him like a Brigadier!"
Yancey laughed, picked up McGee's report and handed it to Mullins. "Read that—especially the last paragraph. When Cowan reads that I can see his chest droppin' like a toy balloon that meets up with a pin. I sure want to be hangin' around when it is presented to him. This war has its compensations. Boys, make yourselves comfortable and await the comin' of the mighty. It's worth stayin' up all night to see."
Orders for the Front
McGee's victory had a most salutary effect upon the personnel of the squadron. They lost sight of the fact that he had been highly favored by luck in the encounter and that but for luck, coupled with skill, the balance might well have been in the enemy's favor. They began to look upon victory as a luscious fruit that would always be served to their table—defeats were the bitterberries that the enemy must eat.
This attitude was greatly strengthened by another fortunate victory of a squadron stationed at Toul. This squadron, while it boasted some splendid flyers, was quite green and had much to learn. But, despite this, they too had been victors in their first encounter with the enemy, and in a manner quite as dramatic as had been McGee's victory. And it was more widely heralded because the victor was wearing an American uniform and the victory could be properly called the first score for the Americans. It came about in this fashion:
A Spring day dawned, cold and foggy, and three members of the squadron at Toul had gone on patrol. Their ardor was soon dampened by the chill fog and they returned to their base. Shortly after their return the alert was sounded and the report came that German planes were coming over, concealed by the ceiling of fog. In a few moments their motors could be heard above the town. That minute two Americans left the ground, climbing rapidly toward the ceiling of fog. Just as they neared it, two German planes came nosing down. They were barely clear of the blinding fog cloud when they were attacked by the American pilots. So swift was the attack, and so accurate the fire, that both German planes were forced down and the two American pilots were back on the ground in less than five minutes from the time of their take-off.
Luck? Yes, Luck and Skill—the two things that must walk hand in hand with every war pilot. But there was no one to be found in all of Toul who even hinted of luck. Had not the fight taken place in full view of the townspeople? Had they not witnessed the daring and skill of these Americans? Luck? Ask the citizens of Toul. Ah, mais non, Messieurs! they would tell you. The German planes dived—so. Whoosh! Out of the cloud they came. And there were those precious Americans, waiting for them—and in just the right place. Is not that skill, Monsieur? Then, taka-taka-taka-taka went their guns. Only a minute so. Voila! The Boche are both out of control. Ah, that is not luck, Monsieur.
All along the front American squadrons accepted the verdict as evidence of superior flying ability, but McGee and Larkin, with the knowledge bought by bitter experience, knew that perhaps in the very next encounter the balance would be in favor of the other fellow. They knew, too, that over-confidence is an ally singing a siren song. They worked hard to dispel this over-confidence that had laid hold of the group, but their words of warning fell on deaf ears.
This spirit of eager confidence was not peculiar to the air groups near the front; it was a part of the entire American Expeditionary Force. Where was this bloomin' war that seemed so difficult to win? asked the American doughboy. Bring it on! Trot it out! Let's get it over and get out of this Parlez vous land. Just give them a crack at Fritz! Say! In no time at all they'd have Old Bill himself trussed up in chains and carried back to the little old U.S.A., and exhibited around the country at two-bits a peek. Guess that wouldn't be a nifty way to help pay for the war! And as for the Crown Prince—well, over a hundred thousand American doughboys had promised to bring his ears back to a hundred thousand sweet-hearts—just a little souvenir to show what an American could do when he got going.
This same boastful confidence was present among the pilots with whom McGee and Larkin were daily associated, but fortunately it was somewhat counterbalanced by the long-delayed orders sending the squadron to the front. April slipped away and May came. Still no orders. It was maddening! Yancey, Fouche, Hampden, Hank Porter, Rodd—in fact all members of the command, save Siddons, fretted and fumed and voiced their opinions of a stupid G.H.Q., that failed to appreciate just what a whale of a squadron this was.
Siddons accepted the delay in the same cool, indifferent manner with which he met all the vexations of the army. It was as water on a duck's back; he seemed not to care a hoot whether he ever engaged an enemy. Then in May, with alarming suddenness and force, the German Crown Prince began his great drive at Paris. His ears, it seemed, were yet intact, and those Americans who had so earnestly hoped to get them were soon to discover that the possessor thereof was all too safely ensconced behind an advancing horde of German infantrymen who were driving forward in a relentless, unhalting advance that struck terror to the very heart of war-weary France. In three days the enemy forces swept from the Aisne southward across the Vesle and the Ourcq. Their most advanced position came to rest on the Marne.
For the second time the German army was on the banks of the Marne. "Papa" Joffre had hurled them back from this river in the first year of the war; now Marshal Foch must do as well—or France was doomed.
But Foch was handicapped. He had an army bled white by four years of dreadful warfare. The French soldiers, no less valiant than when the war began, found themselves too weak in numbers to stem the tide of an advance conducted by an ambition crazed Crown Prince determined to reach Paris regardless of the cost to him in human sacrifice.
Sullenly the French fell back, fighting like demons, contesting every inch of the way, but none the less retreating. In this hour of peril France turned her eyes upon the newly arrived and partially trained Americans, and in those eyes, now almost hopeless, was a look of mute, desperate appeal. It must be now or never!
All the roads leading back from the front were choked with refugees too weary, too heartbroken, too barren of hope to do anything but hurry their children before them and strain at their hand drawn, heavy carts piled high with the household belongings which they hoped to save. Old men, old women, the lame, the halt, the blind; dogs, cats, goats, with here and there a dogcart, all struggling to the rear. Many came empty-handed, facing they knew not what, and looking with pity upon the French troops who were moving forward to battle the enemy unto death.
"Ah," said the refugees, shrugging their shoulders, "finis la guerre! These poor Poilus of ours, they cannot stop the Boche. They are too tired, too worn with war. If only we had new blood. If only the Americans would come now. But no, perhaps it is now too late."
Behind them, all too close, rumbled and roared the angry guns—guns of the enemy furrowing fields and leveling houses and villages; guns of the French in savage defiance protesting every inch of advance and holding on with a rapidly failing strength. Help must come now, quickly.
And help came. Two American divisions, ready for action, were summoned by Foch to move forward with all possible speed. The 2nd Division came hurrying from their rest billets near Chaumont-en-Vexin, northwest of Paris; the 3rd Division came thundering by train and camion from Chateau-Villain, southeast of Paris. Two converging lines of fresh, eager warriors came marching, marching, the light of battle in their eyes and with rollicking, boisterous songs on their lips. At quick rout step they came. This was no parade; this was a new giant coming up to test its strength. And all up and down the brown columns the giant was singing as it came....
"Mademoiselle from Armentieres, Parlez vous, Mademoiselle from Armentieres, Parlez vous, Mademoiselle from Armentieres Hasn't been kissed for forty years, Hinkey Dinkey Parlez vous!"
Slush, slog! Slush, slog! went the heavy hobnailed shoes slithering through the mud and water of the roads. Mile after mile, hour after hour. At the end of each weary hour a short rest, an easing of the shoulders from the cutting pack straps. Ten minutes only did they rest. Then down the long columns rang the sharp commands, "Fall in. Fall in! ... Com-pan-ee ... Atten-shun! Forward, March!" A few minutes in cadenced marching and then the command, "Rout step—March!" Again the confident, boisterous giant took up its song:
"Good-bye Ma, good-bye Pa, Good-bye mule with your old he-haw. I may not know what the war's about But I bet by Gosh I soon find out! O, my sweetheart, don't you fear, I'll bring you a king for a souvenir. I'll bring you a Turk, and the Kaiser too, And that's about all one feller can do."
Marching, singing, jesting, they pressed on until their advance guard met the plodding, cheerless, downcast refugees. The French peasants halted in their tracks, staring, unable to believe their eyes. Here, in the flesh, by thousands upon thousands, was the answer to their prayers. Perhaps it was not too late, after all. Here was new strength, new courage.
Old men danced with joy, embracing their wives and children, embracing one another, and tears of joy coursed down their wan, lined faces.
"Les Americains!" they shouted. "Vive l' Amerique! Nous sauveurs sont arrivee!" (The Americans! Long live America! Our saviors have arrived.)
The cry spread; it ran up and down the roads and bypaths; it became a magic sentence restoring courage throughout all France.
As for the resolute Americans, they merely plodded on, questioning one another as to what all the shouting was about. Oh, so that was it? Sure they were here, but why get excited about it? ... The Boche is breaking through, eh? As you were, Papa, and keep your shirt on! And as for that old lady over there by that cart, crying so softly—say! somebody who can parley this language go over there and tell that old lady not to cry any more. Tell her we'll fix it up, toot sweet. O-o-o! La, la! Pipe the pretty mademoiselle over there driving that dogcart. Ain't she the pippin though! Say—
"Fall in! Fall in!... Com-pan-ee, At-ten-shun! Forward, March!"
"Mademoiselle from Armentieres, Parlez vous. Mademoiselle from Armentieres..."
A new giant was going in, a giant that did not yet know its own strength, a somewhat clownish giant, singing as it came.
Those three days of the Crown Prince's drive on the Marne were dark days for France. The French people listened eagerly for word from the front—and prayed as they had never prayed before, while every American unit, wherever billeted in France, waited impatiently for orders that would send them in for their first baptism of fire.
McGee and Larkin, though supposed to be instructors and therefore unmoved by the battle lust that had laid heavy hands on every pilot in France, found themselves itching for action. They could smell battle afar off; they knew the need of air supremacy at such a time. On the flying field, and at squadron headquarters, they tried to cheer up the depressed and sullen pilots who were chafing under the restraint of inaction. But alone, in the home of Madame Beauchamp, they freely expressed their feelings.
"I can't see why this squadron is not ordered up," McGee said to Larkin one night as they sat alone in their room. "They are better trained than we were when we hopped across the channel. Remember that day, Buzz?"
"Yes indeed! That was our big day; it's exactly the same big day these chaps are waiting for. There must be a great need of planes. I understand the German Army has crashed through to the Marne. If they pass there—" he shrugged his shoulders expressively.
They sat for a moment in silence, thinking the same gloomy thoughts that were so staggering to all the people of the allied nations.
"What if the squadron should be sent up?" Larkin asked at last. "Just where would we get off?"
McGee shook his head. "Don't know, I'm sure. It's strange how we've received no word on our applications for repatriation. I guess we are stuck for the rest of the war. Instructors! Bah! I'm developing an itch for action."
"So am I," Larkin agreed. "When we were first sent back from the front, I'll admit I was glad enough to come. I was fed up. But I'm fed up here now. And what can we do about it?"
"Well, for one thing I can go to bed," McGee replied yawning. "To-morrow is another day." He began unwinding one of his wrapped puttees. "Ever notice how much longer these blasted things are when you are sleepy?" he asked.
Just as he had finished with one, and had rolled it into a neat ball, a motor cycle came popping into the yard. Buzz looked at Red inquiringly.
"Wonder what that is?" he asked.
The downstairs front door opened; heavy hobnail shoes sounded on the stairs.
"Dunno," McGee answered, looking at the puttee roll in his hand. "But I'll wager it's something that will force me to put this thing on again. I never got an order from headquarters in my life when I hadn't just finished taking off my putts."
A heavy knock on the door.
An orderly entered, saluted smartly, and handed McGee a folded paper. "A note from Major Cowan, sir. He said there would be no answer."
"Very well. Thank you, Rawlins. For a moment I thought it might be orders for the front."
"No chance, sir. We're the goats of the air service. The war will be over before we get a chance. I say they'd as well kept us at home where we could get real food and sleep in real beds instead of these blasted hay mows us enlisted men sleep in."
"Right you are, Rawlins. I'll speak to the Commanding General about it to-morrow. In the meantime, carry on, Rawlins."
"Yes, sir." A smart salute, a stiff about face, and he was gone. They could hear him grumbling as he went down the stairs.
McGee looked at the folded paper. On it, in Cowan's hand, was written; To Lieutenants McGee and Larkin.
"What is it?" Larkin asked, impatiently.
McGee unfolded the sheet. Scrawled across it were these electrifying words:
"Just finished talking over the phone to Wing. They inform me that orders have been received approving your application for repatriation. The order will come down in the morning. Congratulations. Cowan."
Red slapped Larkin on the back with sufficient force to start him coughing and then began tousling his hair.
"There, you old killjoy!" he was shouting. "Now stop your worrying. What do you think of that?"
Larkin began a clownish Highland fling that eloquently spoke his thoughts. At last he came to rest, snapped his heels together, saluted smartly and said:
"Lieutenant Red McGee, U.S.A., I believe. How do you like that—you little shrimp?"
"Maybe we'll be buck privates, for all you know."
"No, same rank," Larkin answered. "But believe me, I'm free to confess now that I'd rather be a buck in Uncle Sam's little old army than a brass hat in any other. Boy, shake!"
Sometime after midnight, at least an hour after sleep had at last overcome McGee's and Larkin's joyous excitement, a sleep-shattering motor cycle again came pop-popping to their door. The dispatch bearer hammered lustily on the barred front door until admitted by the sleepy-eyed, white robed, grumbling Madame Beauchamp, and then clattered up the stairs, two steps at a time. He pounded heavily on the door of the sleeping pilots.
McGee fumbled around on the table at the side of the bed, found the candle stub, and as the flaring match dispelled the shadows, called, "Come in! Don't beat the door down!"
Rawlins fairly burst into the room. "Major Cowan's compliments, sir, and he directs you to report to the squadron at once."
"Good heavens! At this hour? What's up, Rawlins?"
Rawlins smiled expansively. "Orders for the front, sir. They're taking down the hangar tents now, and trucks will be here in the next hour for baggage and equipment. All the ships are to be on the line, checked and inspected an hour before dawn. The C.O. said to make it snappy. He said a truck would come after your luggage. It's a madhouse over at headquarters, sir."
Both pilots sprang from the bed.
"Do you know where my orderly sleeps, Rawlins?" McGee asked.
"Go bounce him out and send him up here, tout suite! Tell Major Cowan we'll be over on the double quick. By the way, Rawlins, do you know where we're going?"
"No, sir. Secret orders, I understand. But I don't care a whoop just so long as it's to the front."
"Right you are. Toddle along, Rawlins. Buzz, light that other candle over there. I can't even find my shoe by this light."
An hour later, with all personal equipment packed and ready for the baggage truck, McGee and Larkin reported to Cowan, who was standing outside headquarters, issuing orders with the rapidity of a machine gun.
"All set, sir," McGee said, "and thanks for the note of congratulations. In the nick of time, wasn't it? Otherwise we would have been left behind."
"I suppose so," the Major replied. "Fact is, I don't know your status now, and I don't know how to dispose of your case. I called Wing and was told that your assignment hadn't come down. The personnel of this squadron is complete. Here's a pretty pickle! Guess I'd better pass the buck and send you back to Wing."
McGee's face fell. For once words failed him. He turned his eyes on Larkin, appealingly.
Larkin entered the breach manfully. "Major Cowan," he began, "when we made application to get back under our own flag, we did it hoping we'd go to the front—not to the rear. This sudden order comes because pilots are needed. The better trained they are, the better our chances for victory. I'm not boasting, sir, but McGee and I have been in action. We can be a help."
"Yes, yes. Of course. I'd like to have you in my squadron, well enough, but what about the red tape?"
"Wait until it catches up with us. Don't go looking for red tape to fetter us," Larkin replied.
"Hum-m!" Cowan mused. He knew, none better, that here before him stood two excellent pilots with a wealth of combat experience. If he sent them back, doubtless some other squadron would draw them, and that squadron commander would be the gainer, he the loser. Still, he had no authority for taking them along. An assignment order would doubtless reach them within twenty-four or forty-eight hours. Still and all, he considered, much can happen in that time—especially to an untried squadron going into action. Such pilots as these were scarce, and many were the commanders who would seek them. "Well," he said at last, "just what would you do in my place?"
It was a fair question, and one seldom heard from the lips of a commanding officer. Coming from Cowan, it was doubly surprising, and effectively blocked all pleas founded on sentiment and sympathy.
Now Larkin was stumped, but McGee was ready to take up the gage.
"Major Cowan, I have been in the service long enough to know that the wise army man always gets out from under. Pass the buck. It's the grand old game. But I see a way out. If I were in your position I would direct the issue of an order sending us back. But," he added as Cowan evidenced surprise, "I'd manage to have that order mislaid in the excitement."
Cowan nervously paced back and forth. Suddenly he wheeled in decision. "No," he said, "I won't pass the buck; I won't shift the responsibility. Passing the buck in training may be all very well, but a commander who does so in action is not fitted for command. We are on the eve of action. Report to Lieutenant Mullins, gentlemen, and tell him I said you were to go along. See that your ships are ready at four a.m." He turned and walked rapidly toward a group of ground men who were loading a truck.
Larkin's eyes became wide with astonishment. "Well what do you know about that! Say, that bird is going to make a real C.O."
"I think he is one now," McGee answered. "Action does that to men—sometimes."
The Squadron Takes Wing
Only a war pilot can visualize the confusion and excitement incident to moving a squadron base up to the front. There is work enough for all even when such a move is foreseen and planned for days in advance, but when a moving order comes down in the dead of night—as is so frequently the case—then rank is forgotten. Pilots, Commanders, Supply and Operations officers, air mechanics, flight leaders, in fact everyone, from the C.O. down to the lowliest greaseball, pitches in with a gusto sufficient to produce a miracle. For it is little short of the miraculous to carry out an order, received at midnight, calling for a movement at dawn. In fact, one inexperienced in army ways would declare that it couldn't be done. But Great Headquarters considers only what must be done, issues orders accordingly, and such is the magic of discipline and proper spirit that lo! the thing is done. The impossible becomes possible—and the ordinary!
And so it was with Major Cowan's squadron. The hour they had so long awaited had come at last. So great was their zeal that with the first hint of dawn in the east the planes were all on the field, properly outfitted, finally checked, and ready to go. Even the planes seemed to be huddled together, poised like vibrant butterflies, eager to take wing.
McGee and Larkin well knew, from experience, the varied, conflicting emotions felt by the members of the squadron. Standing near the barren spot where the large hangar tent had been, they watched the various members making their last minute preparations. Occasionally they gathered in groups, all talking at once, and in hurriedly passing one another they would slap each other on the back with a force greater than needed in friendly greeting. It was the fevered reaction of nerves! They had waited for this hour, yes, and at last they were going up to the front; but every man of them knew that some of them would never come back. There was a grim gateman up there where the guns roared, waiting to take his toll.
"They think they are going right in," Larkin said to Red, as he watched a pilot by the name of Carpenter make the last of at least a dozen inspections of his two machine guns. "We haven't the foggiest notion where we are going, but I'll wager we won't see action for several days."
"I think you are wrong there," McGee replied. "There's a tremendous push up on the Marne. My guess would be that we will go somewhere in the neighborhood of Epernay—probably to take over a sector patrolled by a French squadron so that they can be used on the more active front around Chateau-Thierry or up around Rheims. Hullo! There goes the siren and here comes the Major. We will know soon enough now."
"I'll wager you a dinner it's another soft spot—no action," Larkin said.
"Done! You are through with soft spots now."
Major Cowan's quick walk spoke volumes. The pilots shouted derisively at the sound of the siren, a distressingly noisy contrivance designed to arouse sleepy pilots and turn them out for dawn patrol.
"Fall in! Fall in!" Mullins began shouting. "You act like a bunch of sheep! Line up there!"
"Call the roll of officers," Cowan ordered.
A staff sergeant, who had kept his wits sufficiently to rescue the roll from another headquarters non-com who was packing everything in one of the trucks, came hurrying forward with the roll. The names were droned off. The "Here!" that responded to each name was a full commentary on the mental attitude of the respondent. Yancey, for instance, fairly shouted his, while Rodd hesitated, seeming to search for an even smaller word. Carpenter's "here," was little more than a whisper, as might come from one who was making an admission which he wished circumstances had ordered otherwise. And the rotund little McWilliams answered in a manner that convinced McGee that Mac was really wishing he were not here.
McGee and Larkin, not yet carried on the roll, stood to one side, conscious of the fact that they were still wearing uniforms of the Royal Flying Corps. They felt like two lost sheep.
"Look at their faces," Red whispered to Larkin. "Faces tell a lot. They're keen to go, all right, but take Carpenter and McWilliams, for instance. Scared stiff. They're expecting to meet an entire Hun Circus between here and—and wherever we are going."
The roll call ended.
"Gentlemen," Major Cowan began, his voice crisp and business-like, "we have been ordered up to La Ferte sous Jouarre, due southwest of the Chateau-Thierry salient."
The exclamation of surprise forced him to pause. McGee gave Larkin a dig in the ribs. "I win," he said. "That's no soft spot."
"But," Major Cowan continued, "for some reason Brigade has seen fit to divide the journey into two parts. Possibly to permit our trucks to reach there ahead of us, but more probably because it lacks faith in our ability to make the change without scattering our ships all along the line of flight. For my part, I have no such fear. I think I know the ability of this pursuit group." He hesitated, to let this sink in. And it was well that he did. Yancey gasped, and began coughing to cover it up. Hank Porter stepped on Hampden's boot with great force. Hampden in turn nudged Siddons, who alone of all the group displayed no emotion. Never before had these men heard Cowan indulge in compliment. Something had come over him. His moustache actually looked a little more like a man's moustache. In fact, Yancey thought, the blasted thing was almost military.
"However," Cowan continued, "we will fly to a field just south of Epernay to-day. To-morrow morning we will take off and continue a course, almost parallel with the present lines, to La Ferte sous Jouarre. Our destination has been kept confidential until this moment. From necessity, of course, I have gone over the maps and our course with the flight leaders. They know the way. In case one of them should be forced down, that flight will double up with one of the others. You have little to worry about. Keep your head and remember where you are going. If forced down, proceed to La Ferte sous Jouarre, on the Paris-Metz road, at the earliest moment. But," he added, slowly, "as I said before, I expect to see us arrive there together, and in order. That is all, gentlemen. Yonder comes the sun. To your ships now, and look sharp as you take off. Remember, this is no joy-ride. Hold your positions."
The pilots broke into a run for their ships, slapping one another on the shoulder as they ran.
"Luck, old war horse."
"Same to you, big feller."
"Hey, Yancey! If you're leading B Flight, give her the gun and high-tail it. The war's waiting!"
"S'long, Hank. Luck, feller."
"Get a waddle on, Mac. The war's lookin' up, eh?"
"I hope to spit in your mess kit."
Laughing, bantering, shouting, they climbed into their planes. The helpers stood at the wings, ready to take out the chocks when the motors had warmed; the mechanics took their places at the props. How envious they were! The little wasps that they had so carefully groomed were going forward to the battle zone, and every mechanic offered up prayer that his ship would function perfectly and make good the hope which Cowan had expressed.
A prop went over, whish! The first motor caught and roared. Another ... another ... bedlam now. No longer any shouting, only a waving of hands, a few last minute adjustments as the motors warmed and sent a mighty dust cloud whirling back to obliterate the spot where the hangar had stood.
Straight ahead, a fiery red ball rose over a slate-colored hedge. A long flight of ravens crossed directly before the rising sun. Huh! Clumsy fellows. And slow. Better come over and take some lessons from some real birds.
Cowan's plane moved forward slowly, roared into life and fairly sprang into the fiery eye of the sun. Numbers two and three followed, skimming the dew drenched grass like swallows over a lake. Then four and five. By George, this was something like! This was worth waiting for!
The falconer of war had unhooded his new brood of hawks and they mounted up, free of bells and jesses.
The flight to the airdrome some six kilometers south of Epernay was made without incident. That is, it was thought to be without incident until Yancey, leading B Flight, reported to Cowan that Siddons had been forced down by some trouble over Vitry. Cowan was evidently displeased. He had hoped for a perfect score.
"What was the matter?" he demanded, the ends of his moustache twitching nervously.
"Don't know, sir. He kept droppin' back. I swung alongside but I couldn't savvy his signals. He kept pointin' back at his tail. I couldn't see anything wrong, but there's a big 'drome at Vitry and he signaled me that he was goin' down. I hung around to watch his landin' and then hustled back to my flight."
"Fuel up, fly back there and see what's wrong," Cowan ordered. "I've a sneaky suspicion that he wasn't as bad off as he made out."
As Yancey turned toward his ship, McGee came up, smiling with pleasure over the success of the flight.
"Just a minute, Yancey!" Cowan called. "I've changed my mind. You needn't go back."
He drew McGee to one side. "Do you remember passing over the French 'drome outside of Vitry?" he asked.
"Your plane is in good order?"
"Good. Yancey tells me that Siddons was forced down there. I want you to refuel, go back there and see what the trouble was. I have my own ideas."
"Yes?" McGee queried.
"That fellow hates formation flying like the devil hates holy water," Cowan answered. "He's a joy-rider. He knows how anxious I am to effect this move without a hitch, and he also knows there'll be no passes into Epernay to-night. I've a hunch Vitry looked good to him. I want you to find out."
"Very well, sir."
"I'm sending you," Cowan explained, smiling faintly, "because it doesn't make so much difference if you get lost, since you are merely 'also along', and also because I don't expect you to get lost. Report to me upon your return."
The mission was not particularly pleasing to McGee. Chasing around after Siddons was not his idea of a riotous time.
It was some fifty-five kilometers back to Vitry, but with a good tail wind he made it in quick time. The French major in command of the squadron stationed there was exceedingly gracious. Yes, the American had landed, he told McGee, but he had taken off again within the hour. The trouble? Well, he complained that his rudder was jamming, but the mechanics could not find anything wrong. He had said, also, that his motor was running too hot. Perhaps, the major suggested, with an understanding smile, this one had rather fly alone, hein? So many of them would—and especially by way of Paris, or other good towns. Yes, he had given his destination—La Ferte sous Jouarre, but is not that on a direct line for Paris, Monsieur? These youthful ones, would they never learn that this was a serious business? But no, Monsieur, they are young, and how can you make one fear discipline who daily faces death? Poof! It was the grave problem.
McGee left Vitry with his own conclusions. So Siddons had pulled a forced landing in order to go for a joy-ride. Now he was off having a fine time and would claim that his delay at Vitry was so long that he thought it best to head for La Ferte. Well, they would have him there. He had not reckoned that Cowan would send someone back.
Upon McGee's return to the squadron, Cowan was too busy to see him, nor did he send for him until after mess that night. When McGee arrived at the Major's temporary quarters he found him in company with Mullins, the Operations officer, and both were bending over a large map spread out on the table.
Cowan looked up with the quick, exasperated nervousness which he always displayed when interrupted.
"Well!" he barked, crisply.
"You sent for me, sir?"
"Yes, yes. I had forgotten. What about Siddons?"
McGee had decided to shield Siddons to the extent of not reporting the fact that the mechanics at Vitry had found nothing wrong with the plane. A squealer gains no friends in the Army.
"I don't know where he is, Major. He landed at Vitry, complaining of a jamming rudder and heating engine. He took off again in an hour. He hasn't showed up yet. Perhaps he thought it best to go on to La Ferte."
"Humph!" Cowan retorted, the pointed ends of his moustache twitching. "Maybe he did! He needs grounding. I'd send him to Observation if the Chief of Air hadn't ordered us to quit using observation work for punishment. They crack up those crates too fast. And Siddons is just the kind to do that sort of trick. He's a good flyer, certainly, but—what would you do with him, McGee?"
"Oh, I say now—"
"Rats! Mullins, how would you handle him? He's a cold fish, you know."
Mullins gulped. He was not accustomed to having Cowan ask his opinion about anything. However, here was a golden opportunity.
"Cold or hot, I'd let that bird cool off a little more on the ground. He's been joy-riding ever since we drew ships. We'll go into action soon, don't you think?"
"Keep him out of the first patrol. He'll come whining to you and he'll sit up and be nice from then on."
"Hum-m!" Cowan again bent over the maps.
"Anything else, Major?" McGee asked.
"No ... Yes, wait!" he called as McGee reached the door. "You have had a lot of combat experience, Lieutenant. I don't mind telling you that the load of responsibility gets heavier as we approach action." He turned away from the table, walked to the window, and stood gazing out into the utter blackness of the night. "I wonder," he mused, his voice subdued, "if any of you truly appreciate the weight of the responsibility."
Mullins glanced at McGee, wonderingly. Both were thinking the same thoughts. Here was a man, who, until the last forty-eight hours, had always been quite sufficient unto himself. Now a sudden change had come over him. One of two things was certain: either he was breaking, and would soon be taken from command for inefficiency; or he was a strong man indeed, strong enough to admit weaknesses, unblushingly seek aid, and make use of all available knowledge.
Mullins, in his own mind, decided it was the former; McGee, in his mind, was confident that it was the latter, and he warmed to him.
"No matter," Cowan himself made reply to his unanswered question as he turned from the window with much of his old self-confidence. "Responsibility is a thing which command imposes—and which I accept. However, that does not prevent me from profiting by the experience of others, as I expect to do in your case, McGee."
"If I can help—"
"You can. A recent report from General Mitchell declares that casualties from all causes have been as high as eighty per cent per month in squadrons at the front. That's pretty stiff! Fortunately, the General points out, the enemy losses have been as great, or even greater. I don't want to leave a stone unturned that may help us to decrease that percentage in this pursuit group—and increase it among the enemy! Here, take a look at this map, McGee."
He stepped to the table and with a pencil drew a circle around a spot south of Epernay. "We are here," he said. "The lines are here." He moved the pencil to the northwest of Epernay, where the heavy black lines indicating the front crossed the Marne. "Notice that the lines swing southwest through Comblizy and la Chapelle, then northwest again, back to the Marne, and on to Chateau-Thierry. To-morrow we are to go here." He circled a spot just south of La Ferte sous Jouarre. "See anything peculiar in this situation?" He studied closely the faces of the two junior officers. Mullins offered no reply.
"I think it peculiar that we have come up here, miles out of our way to the north, when our destination is considerably southwest of us," McGee offered.
"Exactly!" Cowan replied, approvingly. "But there is a reason for it—to mislead the enemy. Their Intelligence Department seems to learn of every move we make, and sometimes learns of it in advance of that move. That's the real reason we are here."
"I don't get it," Mullins said, shaking his head.
"The order sending us here came down in the regular way," Cowan explained, "but the order that takes us to La Ferte, to-morrow morning, was highly confidential. I did not disclose it until the moment of our departure, and only then so that anyone forced down would know our destination. There is to be a considerable concentration of air forces on the apex of the salient between la Chapelle, this side of Chateau-Thierry, and Villers-Cotterets, on the other side. It is the beginning of a movement of concentration to drive the enemy back beyond the Vesle. Hence the secrecy, and the effort to mislead the enemy as to our movements."
McGee smiled, somewhat skeptically.
"What's wrong with that?" Cowan challenged.
"The enemy isn't so easily misled, Major," McGee answered. "We learned that lesson on the English front, and learned it through bitter experience. If the Hun doesn't know right now where we are going, he will know of our arrival twenty-four hours after we get there. If he fails to foresee our concentration at this point, he is thick-headed and slow-witted indeed. I, for one, do not consider him slow-witted. About the only secret we keep from him is the order that is never issued."
Cowan frowned. "I suppose you are right. But how does all this information leak through?"
"If I knew that, Major, I'd be too valuable to be a pursuit pilot. If we knew where the leaks were we could plug them by making use of several good firing squads."
"You are right," Cowan agreed, and again bent over the map, studying it with minutest care. "See here," he said at last. "If we flew a true course from here to La Ferte we would parallel the front for several miles. Here, just south of la Chapelle, we'd be within three miles of the line. That's pretty close for a green squadron, don't you think?"
"We'll be closer than that in the next few days—by exactly three miles!" Mullins answered. "Personally, I'd like to have a look-see at the jolly old Hun."
"I don't think you need worry, Major," McGee offered. "It isn't likely that we will run into any of them, and if we should we would so outnumber them that they would establish some new records in high-tailing it home."
"You think so?" Cowan seemed so unduly disturbed over so remote a prospect that McGee found himself again doubting the Major's courage.
"I do. Why, look at our strength! The Boche prefers to have the numerical superiority on his side."
"But you'd take up combat formation, of course?"
"Yes, and in echelon, one flight above another by a margin of three thousand feet. Then, if the beggar wants to jump on that sort of buzz saw, let him come—and welcome."
"There will be time enough to welcome him when we reach our new base—all present or accounted for," Cowan replied. "You have no objection to flying in the top flight with me to-morrow?"
"Why, no sir. Of course not. I'll be honored."
"Bosh! No flattery, Lieutenant. I don't expect it—especially from you."
Seemingly quite exasperated, Cowan turned away, walked quickly to the window and again stood looking out into the night. Mullins winked at McGee and made a quivering motion with his hand, indicating that he thought Cowan was suffering from a case of nerves.
The Major turned from the window and stared at Mullins with a cold, but studious eye. It made the Operations officer exceedingly uncomfortable.
"You forget, Lieutenant Mullins, that a window facing a dark courtyard provides a most excellent mirror. Nerves, eh? Well, we shall see. If a commander seeks counsel, some are likely to think him a fool. If he does not, he is a fool. When I said to McGee, 'no flattery' I meant just that. Furthermore, I don't mind telling both of you that I know the regard in which I am held by some—perhaps all—of the members of this squadron. I even know my nickname, 'Old Fuss-Budget'. Humph! A hard master always wins the name of 'old' something or other. I don't care a hoot about that. I don't care a hoot about the opinions of any man in this group if only the result of their training shows a balance in favor of our country. Am I right or wrong?"
McGee and Mullins were too surprised to offer reply. This was quite the longest speech Cowan had ever made in their presence; certainly it was the most frank.
"Well," Cowan continued, "I have applied the goad whenever and wherever I thought it needed. I have been goaded in turn, and took it without whimpering. I wonder, Lieutenant," he turned to McGee, "if you remember the report you made on that Hun you shot down over our 'drome?"
"Why—yes, sir, I do."
"And the recommendation you tacked on to it?"
"Yes, sir." Pretty warm, this, McGee thought.
"Then you will recall that it did not reflect any too much credit on me, as the man responsible for any failure on the part of any member of this command. But I did not ask you to change the dotting of an I or the crossing of a T. Nor did you hear a word out of me when I received my bawling out. The army is like that. From enlisted man to Commanding General, every fellow thinks he is the only one with a prod in his side. The truth is, the greater the rank, the higher the responsibility, and the sharper the gaff. I often wish for the quiet, untroubled mind of a buck private—and I thank Heaven that I am only a Major. Which reminds me that I am one, and had better cut out conversation and fall to work."
His expression changed instantly; he became again the nervous, irascible, driving commander.
"As for wanting you in the top flight," he plunged into his quick manner of speaking, "it is because I want someone there whose eyes are trained at picking up enemy planes. Doubtless I will get severely reprimanded for bringing you along, so I had as well get the greatest possible good out of your experience. You will inform Lieutenant Larkin that he is to go in B Flight, with Yancey."
"Very well, sir. But if you really fear any trouble, Larkin will be more effective in the top flight. Altitude means a lot—and I always feel safer when he is sticking around close to me."
"No, I want him with Yancey. We might get separated, and if I draw an ace for myself, I should give Yancey as good a card."
McGee smiled at the pun. "Very well, sir, but while speaking of aces, it's always best to have 'em up. And the higher up the better. Larkin is a great pilot when he has plenty of altitude—right where a lot of the others fall down. Take him with you and let me go with Yancey."
"Oh, very well. I started in to ask for advice and I had as well take it. That will be all to-night, Lieutenant. No, wait! One other thing: Say nothing to anyone about Siddons going off joy-riding. Let them think he is still at Vitry. I want to handle him my own way, without stirring up any comment. If they find out he cut formation on a trumped up hokus-pokus, they would think I should ground him."
Mullins' jaw dropped in surprise and astonishment. "Aren't you going to ground him?" he asked.
"I am not! I'm going to see that he draws some hot stuff. I've a nice little mission all figured out for him."
A glint in Cowan's eyes testified that he was again the self-sufficient commander, confident of his decisions and determined upon his course of action.
Von Herzmann Strikes
At dawn the following morning, well behind the German lines in the vicinity of Roncheres, Count von Herzmann's famous Circus was making feverish haste to take the air. Von Herzmann himself was coolly instructing the pilots in the purposes of their coming expedition. His elation was great indeed, and his entire manner, as well as the pleased smile that played over his youthful, handsome face, indicated that he was confident of victory. Confidence, however, was no new trait in von Herzmann. He always possessed it, but it stopped just short of blind egotism. Perhaps therein could be found the reason for his fame and his success. He was no blundering, egobefuddled braggart riding for a fall; he was a splendid pilot, a careful tactician, fearless when fearlessness was needed and cautious when caution would bring greater reward than blind valor. In short, his fame rested securely upon ability. He was one of the idols of his countrymen, and he was a scourge both feared and respected by the allied air forces. The ships of his Circus were painted in whatever gaudy colors proved appealing to the pilots thereof, but the fuselage of each bore the famous insignia of the Circus—the defiant German eagle with its blood red feet and talons supported on a scroll bearing the legend, Gott Mit Uns. And indeed it did seem that this Circus was providentially watched over.
For more than a year the watchword of the French and English had been, "Get von Herzmann." It was an easy phrase to coin, but extremely difficult to execute. Many a French and English pilot had gone gunning for him, but most of these were now in their graves. Those who escaped were a little less enthusiastic in their next search for this skilled airman who had run up a total of more than two score victories.
Von Herzmann, in addition to being a skilled pilot, was as elusive as a ghost. He was here, there, everywhere. Wherever there was a heavy drive or a sturdy, sullen defensive, there could be found Count von Herzmann. The Allies, making use of this knowledge, had sent out many bombing expeditions to blast the nest of this troublesome Circus from the face of the earth, but their deadly bombs fell upon deserted, decoy hangars.
As is always the case, those who exhibit a certain degree of excellence find ready help at the hand of admirers who wish them still further success and acclaim. It was so in von Herzmann's case. The German army could ill afford to lose one who was so brilliant in his operations and so firmly established as one of the popular national idols. The German Intelligence Department gave him all possible assistance, thereby not only saving his precious neck but furnishing still more glamorous stories for a populace that was daily becoming more disheartened and weary with war.
On this morning at Roncheres, von Herzmann was again preparing to shake another plum into his lap. Military Intelligence had received word late the previous evening that an American Pursuit Squadron would on the following morning leave from a 'drome south of Epernay and proceed to a new base south of La Ferte sous Jouarre. Doubtless they would parallel the line south of la Chapelle. What could be simpler than to send forth von Herzmann with the full strength of his justly famous Circus to intercept these untried Americans? Here was a ripe plum indeed—to be had for the picking!
Von Herzmann was particularly well pleased. He smiled as he climbed jauntily into his gaudy green and gold Fokker tri-plane. So the stupid Americans had thought to lead the German High Command astray by such a clumsy movement? Ha! They forgot that a good spy system is like wheels within wheels. But they would learn—in time.
Smiling, he examined his twin Spandau machine guns. Then he glanced along the line of ships making up the first flight. Yes, they were ready, awaiting his signal, their idling motors purring like so many contented cats. The smiling, blond von Herzmann lifted his hand in signal. The purring sound changed to the deafening roar of a hundred infuriated jungle cats. The leading plane raced along the green field, and a moment later the first flight of von Herzmann's great Circus leaped into the air, climbed rapidly, and laid a course for a cloud bank hanging over the lines above Comblizy.
How often the youthful, clever von Herzmann had made use of shielding cloud banks, or lacking clouds had placed himself above his adversary, squarely in the blinding sun. One of the two, or both perhaps, would serve him again this morning.
His smile grew broader as he neared the front. It was thrilling, this hunting business, and it was made decidedly easier when Intelligence cooperated fully, as they had done in this instance. He knew the strength of his quarry, their lack of experience, and the report had included the statement that two of the planes were piloted by instructors fresh from the English front, flying English Camels. Two hated Englanders, eh? Gott strafe England! He would single them out and take care of them, one at a time. The rest of his command would scatter the others like quails, and the survivors, not well acquainted with the terrain, would have a nice problem in finding their way to La Ferte. Himmel! but it was a pleasing prospect.
Major Cowan's squadron had been slightly delayed in starting by two malfunctioning Nieuports. A precious half hour was spent in correcting the difficulty and the sun had changed from a dull red ball to a blinding white disk racing up the eastern sky wall by the time the flights had gained proper altitude and laid a true course for La Ferte sous Jouarre.
The top flight, with Cowan leading, had climbed to twelve thousand feet. B Flight, under Yancey, was some three thousand feet under him and somewhat in advance. This gave the top flight a greater protective power and insured the bottom flight against any surprise attack. Not only were the flights in echelon, but the planes of each unit were also echeloned, each plane being slightly above the one directly ahead. It was a formidable formation, capable of being readily manoeuvered and with each pilot insured the best possible vision.
A few white, vapory clouds hung high over the trenches toward Comblizy, and still heavier banks were to be seen to the south of la Chapelle, hanging over the Surmelin Valley. In all other directions the sky presented that fathomless blue so well known to all pilots who ascend above ten thousand feet. The open space between these apparently unmoving cloud banks was some three or four miles in width.
Larkin, in the top flight with Major Cowan, had taken up position as the hindermost plane in the group and had, therefore, the greatest altitude. As a rule, he never was satisfied with his altitude until he had pushed his plane somewhere near the limit of its climbing ability. He was a splendid pilot at great altitude, and he had learned from experience that many pilots capable of doing good work at the lower levels flounder around like fish out of water when above twelve thousand feet. This being equally true of friend and foe, Larkin always felt better when he was high enough not to have any worry about someone coming down on him. He preferred having his enemies below rather than above.
This morning, however, he took no thought of the matter. Before taking off Major Cowan had said no more than, "Look sharp when we get south of la Chapelle; head on a pivot, you know." Shucks! Slim chance for any excitement with a group like this. Even if they sighted a small enemy patrol they would have to go merrily on their way and leave the game to someone else. However, a war pilot with skill enough to become such an ace as Larkin needs little caution about "looking sharp." It is habit with him, and those who fail to develop the habit are only a few hours or days removed from sudden disaster.
There was little enough to see. They were flying westward. Again and again Larkin turned his head around, closed one eye and placing a thumb close to his open eye squinted into the blinding sun. Many times, by the employment of that little trick, he had been able to momentarily diffuse the sun's rays sufficiently to catch the faintest blurred outline of enemy planes sitting in the sun and waiting for the proper moment to dive.
This morning the sun seemed unusually bright and blinding. Somewhat ahead, and to the south, three large French observation planes were coming up toward the lines at la Chapelle. They were just about even, vertically, with the cloud bank over the Surmelin Valley. They would pass almost directly under the bottom flight, led by Yancey.
Larkin watched them, somewhat idly. Photographic mission, probably. Then, with little or no interest in them, his eye ran along the two converging lines of planes that made up Yancey's flight. That moment he noticed McGee's plane cut out of position and zoom up at an angle too steep to be maintained. Then McGee's plane levelled off and was hurled through a series of quick acrobatics. It meant but one thing—manoeuver!
Larkin jerked his head around and squinted into the sun. Not a thing there—at least nothing he could see—and as soon as the stabbing streaks of light left his eyes he glanced toward the cloud bank over the Marne. Nothing there. The three French observation busses, far below, were going gaily on their way. But McGee was still climbing and stunting. Larkin knew that this was no idle exhibition. McGee didn't fly that way. He was trying to draw their attention to something.
Larkin looked ahead at Cowan's plane. That moment the Major dipped his plane twice. Now what in the world did he mean by that? Larkin wondered. Merely that he had noticed McGee and was on the alert? Or did he mean that he too had seen the enemy? Enemy! Where was the enemy?
Again Larkin turned his head to try the sun. Nothing there ... yes, by George! there was a blur of black spots. But it was such a fleeting view that he could not be sure, and tried again. Blast the sun! It made him blind as a bat!
He closed his eyes to cut out the dancing sparks and pin wheels. He opened them again, and on turning for one more trial at the sun his eye fell upon the cloud bank to the north. Talk about being blind! Blind as a bat was right!
There, dark, dim and shadowy against the cloud were more German planes than he had ever before seen in one group, and their angle of direction left no question as to their purpose.
Again he tried the sun. Yes, there they were! No question about it now. They were coming down, and in so doing were no longer completely within the eye of the sun. Pretty slick! A group behind to cut off retreat and another group coming out of the clouds at an angle that would intercept the line of flight. And that cloud was fairly raining German planes!
"Well!" Larkin exclaimed aloud. "Here's a howdy-do!"
The planes to the eastward were looming up with surprising speed, and no one could say when the ones behind and above would open up their murderous guns. What would Cowan do? What would any of these green pilots do in such a dog fight? Larkin looked down at McGee. He was still climbing for all he was worth. Cowan, if he saw anything, was too paralyzed for action. But perhaps he had not seen. Air eyes come through experience, Larkin knew, and something must be done right now.
In the moment that he determined upon a course of action he saw another group of planes come streaming out of the cloud to the south. Curtains! The whole sky was full of planes. Then, as they swerved sharply, he saw the sunlight play on the allied cockade. And how they came! Spads, French Spads! Going up to the front, perhaps, as a covering flight for the observation crates far below. But now they were swinging into this grand and unexpected melee.
Larkin grinned. "Here is a howdy-do—sure 'nuff!" he repeated and went into a tight, climbing turn that brought him squarely around, facing the planes streaming down out of the sun. Taps for Mr. Larkin, he thought, but he would at least give them pause, and by so doing not only provide Cowan with a chance to wake up and manoeuver, but it would give the oncoming Spads the one thing they needed—time!
The lightning-like movements and happenings of an aerial dog fight cannot be followed or seen by any one man. Fortunate indeed is that pilot who can keep track of what is going on around him. One moment he may have a single adversary; the next he is the target for two or more planes. If he shakes them off, or by marksmanship reduces the odds, he may check in for mess that evening; failing to do so, a squadron commander will that night requisition a new pilot.
As Larkin came around on the quickly executed turn he was only faintly conscious of the fact that a considerable group of Fokker tri-planes were sweeping down on him. He gave no thought to the number. His eye was fixed upon a bright green and gold plane in the lead. As he pulled up the nose of his Camel and thumbed the trigger release for his first burst, he sensed the strange exultation that comes to that man who, facing death in a forlorn hope and knowing there is no escape, accepts all chances and sells his life as dearly as possible.
The diving green and gold plane flashed across his ring sights as the Lewis gun poured forth its first burst. Square into the oncoming plane the tracers poured. Larkin, seeing that he was on, held his nose up until he knew he was about to stall.
The green plane dipped, dived under him, and Larkin noticed another plane flash past him, bent on other game. Then splinters flew from one of his struts and a bullet smacked against the instrument board.
He had lost flying speed on his zoom to get at the green plane. To regain speed, and give life to his laboring motor, he dived sharply.
At the beginning of this dive a glance told him that the green plane had suffered an injury vital enough to cause it to lose all interest in any return to the attack.
During the first flashing seconds of the attack Larkin's mind had been occupied only with the thought of hurling himself at the oncoming planes in the forlorn hope of diverting their course of action for a few brief but precious minutes. Suddenly, now, the fleeing green and gold plane awakened memory. Green and gold! Could that be the plane of the renowned von Herzmann, who from the beginning of his fame had advertised himself as the man who always flew a brightly painted green and gold plane?
Another Fokker dived at Larkin, his Spandaus rattling. His aim was wild and he overshot Larkin's steep dive. But in that dive, which brought him all too close, Larkin caught sight of the insignia on the plane—a German eagle perched on a lettered scroll. It was von Herzmann's Circus!
Larkin's heart leaped. He kicked his left rudder savagely and wheeled left, thundering after the green and gold plane that was streaking homeward. Get that plane, get that plane! ran through his mind. All else faded. The presence of other planes, and his original plan, all were lost sight of in the pulse-quickening realization that he had crippled the plane of the famous ace in that first burst. Now to get him and bring him down! Von Herzmann was not one to cut and run unless there was an urgent reason for it. He was trying to tool a crippled plane back across the lines. Larkin, determined to make the most of this golden opportunity, forthwith lost sight of all else.